“VDOT: HOT lanes plan is best congestion-buster” – WP

December 8, 2015 

Virginia’s top transportation officials say a new study shows that their HOT lanes program represents the best bet for commuters in the heavily congested Interstate 66 corridor.

This report will be part of several presentations about the HOT lanes program the officials make on Tuesday and Wednesday to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Virginia’s policy-making panel on transportation projects. The board is meeting at noon Tuesday and at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center on Seminary Road.

One of the Tuesday presentations will focus on the inside-the-Beltway portion of the I-66 program. The board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on several aspects of the evolving plan. Another presentation on Tuesday afternoon will focus on how the state plans to finance and operate the outside-the-Beltway portion of the I-66 system.

[Transportation chief makes pitch for I-66 HOT lanes]

Together, the I-66 projects represent the biggest people-moving program under active discussion in the D.C. region. Neither Metro’s Silver Line extension nor Maryland’s Purple Line light rail, or any other highway project likely to unfold in the next few years, has the potential to affect the transportation network to the extent the HOT lanes will.

The debate over them has matched their significance. The public portion of that debate will continue Tuesday night at a forum scheduled by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The session will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at George Mason High School, 7124 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church.

While each of Northern Virginia’s HOT lanes projects has been the subject of intense debate, none has been as controversial as the plan to convert today’s I-66 High Occupancy Vehicle lanes inside the Beltway to high-occupancy toll lanes at rush hours. Other HOT projects on the Capital Beltway and on I-95/395 involved adding lanes when the tolling system was added. On I-66 inside the Beltway, the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) hopes to open the HOT lanes system in 2017, but would delay any widening of the interstate pending a study of how well the HOT lanes system is doing as a people-mover and how much impact the system is having on other commuter routes in the corridor.

The status of I-66 inside the Beltway was controversial long before the HOT lanes program came along. In fact, it may be the most fought-over 10 miles of urban interstate in the nation. Much of that earlier, decades-long debate focused on whether there should be an I-66 through Arlington County, whether the highway should then be widened and whether it should be open to all travelers rather than restricted to carpoolers under the HOV system.

Even though the state plan would open the highway to solo drivers willing to pay a toll, the debate has picked up on many of the old themes about widening and access rights. Political opponents and skeptical commuters have asked how the HOT lanes system could have more impact than an immediate widening or alternatives that don’t involve tolling for those who aren’t carpooling.

So the Virginia Department of Transportation had various travel options studied in accordance with one of the project scoring programs approved by the Virginia General Assembly in recent years. This one is known as HB 599, for House Bill 599, the original title of the legislation passed in 2012.

The legislation requires that all significant transportation projects in Northern Virginia be evaluated to develop a rating that measures the degree to which the project is likely to reduce congestion and improve regional mobility in the event of a security emergency.

You can see the results of the state study in the chart below.

The scores on these Northern Virginia transportation projects reflect their anticipated impact by 2040. The top ranking project is the outside-the-Beltway portion of the I-66 project, which would create two HOT lanes and three regular lanes in each direction between the Beltway and Haymarket. The inside-the-Beltway HOT lanes project is in the middle of the pack. The lowest ranking in this group is a straightforward widening of the interstate for four miles between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston, a project that VDOT estimates would cost $100 million.

By 2040, the state’s version, the one that uses the designation “Transform66,” also would include the widening. The differences between the HOT lanes program and the straightforward widening include the HOT lanes traffic management system accomplished through an adjustable toll and the use of toll revenue to enhance carpooling, commuter buses and other alternatives to solo driving. The 2040 plans also assume that the carpool standard will have been raised from HOV2 (at least two people per vehicle) to HOV3.

The toughening of the HOV standard is based on an agreement reached with the regional Transportation Planning Board, which is responsible for monitoring the transportation system’s compliance with federal air quality standards. The HOV3 standard would be imposed in 2020.

Using another measure of congestion relief, the collective reduction in “person hours of delay,” VDOT says its inside-the-Beltway plan would reduce daily delay by an estimated 26,200 hours. A straightforward widening would reduce collective delay by an estimated 5,700 hours per day.

These results will be reviewed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Tuesday. I’ll have further reports based on the board sessions Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Tuesday night’s public hearing.