Stuck on the Beltway? Virginia Offers Congestion Ideas to Maryland
By Mark Uncapher
Public attention on Maryland transportation planning issues has primarily focused on the Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties’ Purple Line and Baltimore’s Red Line since Larry Hogan became governor. The largely limited impact these two projects would actually have on congestion has often been lost. Planners estimate that the Purple Line would add only 11,800 new daily transit riders by the year 2040, less than a one percent increase (0.8%) in metro area ridership.
Earlier this month Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue released the results of VDOT’s Potomac River crossings study. Their main recommendation is to extend the Beltway’s HOV/toll (High Occupancy/Toll) lanes 6.5 miles from their existing terminus north of Tysons Corner, over the American Legion Bridge, and up to the foot of the I-270 spur in Montgomery County.
VDOT’s recommendation focuses on the congestion at the American Legion Bridge, the Capitol Beltway’s northern connection between Maryland and Virginia. The bridge already carries 300,000 cars per day, the most of the eight Potomac crossings. Not only does this bridge experience the worst congestion in the region, it is anticipated to have the largest growth in traffic volume by 2040. Privately financed high occupancy/toll lanes increase traffic capacity without the high taxpayer financed public price tag associated with many other transportation projects.
Virginia has already initiated 95 Express Lanes, also known as the E-Z Pass Express Lanes, for a 14-mile segment of I-495 extending from the Springfield Interchange to a point north of the Dulles Toll Road. The project was financed and built as a result of an agreement with Transurban and the Fluor Corporation. Since the HOV/toll lanes opened in November 2012, drivers are taking an average of 45,000 daily trips in the I-95 HOT lanes, and an average of 42,000 in the Beltway HOT lanes.
Although the average toll on I-95 was $5.48 and the Beltway $3.92, the tolls vary with the length of the trip and the level of traffic in the express lanes. A driver who entered the 95 Express Lanes on a weekday at 8:30 a.m. and did the full northbound trip to just inside the Beltway could pay $10.30. A driver entering the 495 Express Lanes at 8:30 a.m. and taking the full trip to just north of Tysons Corner would pay $12.15.
Whether a driver opts to pay a toll rather than travel at no cost is, of course, a question of personal choice. As consumers we routinely make choices between paying for time saving convenience, and expending more time in order to save money. The HOV/Toll makes such a choice available while driving. However, the lanes can also be made available to bus transportation, making the mass transit option far more attractive.
Under Virginia’s contract with Transurban and Fluor, these private companies made a substantial upfront equity commitment to fund construction of the new lanes and secured financing through private activity bonds and a loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIFIA program. Through this partnership, Virginia was able to leverage private investment to deliver a nearly $1 billion project for only $82 million.
Such an approach could help dramatically stretch Maryland’s transportation dollars, while also addressing one of the state’s most congested bottlenecks. Maryland’s transportation decision makers should join their Virginia counterparts in exploring the HOV/toll option.