After years of discussion and debate, Virginia has reached a nearly $1 billion deal with a private contractor to build high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia that planners hope will improve one of the region's worst traffic corridors.
"It's a significant step forward," said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. "I-95 is certainly the most congested corridor in Virginia and one of the most congested corridors in the United States."
The high-occupancy toll lane project will help speed public transit buses and carpoolers during peak hours, Chase said, as well as people "who need to get someplace in a hurry."
"It's a huge project for our industry," said Jeffrey C. Southard, executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance. "The economic impacts of that project will be significant — hundreds of million of dollars of impact in employement, taxes, [and] purchases.
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"It will help the employment situation along that corridor and throughout the commonwealth," Southard said.
Under the deal announced Tuesday, private contractor Fluor-Transurban would finance 90 percent of the $940 million project, with the rest of the money coming from the state. The contractor would recoup its investment by collecting the tolls under a deal that allows the contractor to operate the road for the next 73 years. Virginia officials said Fluor-Transurban assumes all of the risk if it cannot recoup its investment through tolls. If the tolls provide an unexpected windfall, the state will share in the extra revenue in a range of anywhere from 5 percent to 40 percent.
The existing reversible HOV lanes on I-95 would be expanded from two lanes to three and will be extended 9 miles south to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County, the first time the lanes would extend into the outer suburb of Stafford. Carpoolers could use the lanes for free, while solo riders would pay tolls to use the lanes. Toll rates will vary, with higher rates in place during rush hour.
The existing HOV lanes are typically open to all drivers at nonpeak hours; under the contract with Fluor-Transurban, the lanes will be restricted 24 hours a day to carpools of three or more or those willing to pay a toll. The lanes will continue to be reversible, pointed northbound in the morning rush, southbound in the afternoon rush and in the direction where additional lanes are most needed at all other times.
Drivers who opt not to carpool or pay the tolls can use the regular highway lanes.
The project will provide additional capacity on a stretch of I-95 — the nation's busiest north-south highway — that has seen some of the most rapid population growth in the country. Prince William and Stafford counties have routinely seen some of the fastest growth rates in the country in recent decades.
In a conference call with reporters, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said there is no cap on how high the tolls could go. The tolls will be a pure function of market demand, he said. Fluor-Transurban is required under the contract to raise the tolls as high as necessary during peak times to ensure that traffic moves at least 55 mph in the HOV lanes.
A similar project is already under way on the Capital Beltway. But the state's share was significantly higher — about 20 percent — on the Beltway project, which Connaughton said reflects the technical difficulties associated with the construction occurring on the Beltway, which requires significantly more bridges and overpasses.
Construction could begin as soon as spring and will be completed in 2015 if the schedule holds up.