Network Futurevision

Jan. 1, 2006

The cornerstone for a future Washington regional bus rapid transit (BRT)/high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane network has been laid with the signing of a comprehensive agreement between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Fluor-Transurban, an integrated team consisting of Fluor Enterprises Inc. and Transurban Inc.

The cornerstone for a future Washington regional bus rapid transit (BRT)/high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane network has been laid with the signing of a comprehensive agreement between the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Fluor-Transurban, an integrated team consisting of Fluor Enterprises Inc. and Transurban Inc.

HOT lanes, or managed lanes, have been around for a long time. In 2003 Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation suggested that the benefits of HOT lanes could be greatly multiplied by forming HOT Networks in our congested urban areas. HOT Networks include market-driven toll lanes that would vary in price with the traffic level on America’s most-congested urban freeways. The Washington, D.C., area, which is consistently ranked near the top of America’s most-congested cities by Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report, is an ideal candidate for HOT Networks. The most significant institutional challenge in moving forward with this proposition has been gaining the support of the sovereign governments of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as major federal interests in the capital. Each entity has its own set of priorities.

How, then, should one promote, plan and execute this type of concept in a multiple jurisdictional region? The spark that seemed to light the fire under the HOT Lanes Network concept came from an unlikely place, Virginia’s Public Private Partnership Act of 1995 (PPTA). Virginia’s PPTA is forward thinking and innovative legislation that, to date, has been utilized primarily to identify innovative ways to fund projects already included in the Commonwealth’s transportation plan. However, the PPTA also encourages public-private partnerships (PPP) to be innovative in solving complex transportation problems by going beyond financing.

Wide accepted

In May 2002, Fluor submitted an unsolicited PPP proposal to VDOT to provide four new HOT lanes along the Capital Beltway from I-95 to just beyond the Dulles Toll Road, a distance of 14 miles, at a cost of $700 million. The Capital Beltway (I-495) is the ring road around the capital. The proposal was submitted during VDOT’s ongoing National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), or Environmental Impact Study (EIS), which had reached the public-hearing stage. Initial beltway widening concepts were not well received due to concerns about the potential for significant displacement, multi-billion-dollar price tags and determined opposition from community and environmental groups. Building upon VDOT’s extensive work, Fluor modified one of the alternatives and dramatically reduced displacement to nearly zero. Fluor’s modification stayed within the existing right-of-way, cut costs and incorporated the HOT-lane concept, creating a revenue source that could pay for the proposed improvements.

Following a period of open PPTA competition and careful evaluation of the concept, in June 2004 VDOT, as part of its independent NEPA process, held a new set of public meetings to invite comments on two revised EIS alternatives. The first alternative was for 10 lanes, which suggested adding two new HOV lanes, one in each direction, to the eight existing Beltway lanes. The second alternative was a 12-lane concept, which for an estimated cost of $900 million included four HOT lanes, two in each direction, with access provided by direct ramps, which would avoid mixing of HOT and general-purpose traffic. The 12-lane concept was very similar to the original Fluor proposal. Comparing the number and type of citizen comments received by VDOT at the 2004 public meeting with the 2002 public meeting, it was clear that the public had dramatically turned around from its previous opposition.

In 2002, only 8% of those responding supported any form of Beltway widening, either 10 or 12 lanes. However, in 2004, 54% of the comments favored widening the Beltway, with 42% favoring the 12-lane HOT alternative and 12% favoring the 10-lane HOV alternative. The community clearly recognized the benefits of the HOT-lanes concept.

This change in public opinion was, in part, a direct result of Fluor’s two-year public outreach program designed to help inform the public about HOT lanes and provide an opportunity for asking in-depth questions about the speed, reliability, safety and tax-saving advantages of HOT lanes over traditional road widening.

To respond to VDOT’s desire to finance the entire project without use of state transportation monies, Fluor entered a partnership with Transurban, a major investor and system operator. In late 2004, VDOT began negotiations with the Fluor-Transurban team, and a Comprehensive Agreement was signed in April 2005. Fluor-Transurban is now in the process of developing the project while the NEPA process requirements are being completed. A NEPA Record of Decision was expected in June 2006. Currently, the target for signing a design-build agreement and privately funding the project is early 2007.

The major plan elements for the Beltway HOT-lanes project include:

  • Providing the missing HOV link in the Northern Virginia HOV Network;
  • Allowing multiple passenger vehicles to ride free; others will pay a fee that varies with congestion;
  • Implementing all-electronic toll collection, with no toll booths;
  • Using direct ramps separating HOT and GP traffic for entry and exit points;
  • Establishing two plans to privately finance the project tax exempt debt and concession;
  • Providing a 24/7 operations management; and
  • Anticipating the start of construction in 2007 with completion by 2010.

The Beltway Plan also allows for the option to extend the HOT lanes east, linking up with the soon-to-be completed improvements to the 12-lane Wilson Bridge.

Multi-storied solution

The favorable reception from both the public and local elected officials for the HOT-lanes concept lead to the submission of two unsolicited HOT-lane public-private partnerships for the I-95/395 corridor, extending from the District of Columbia to Spotsylvania County, a distance of 56 miles. Following an intense competition, the Fluor-Transurban plan was selected by VDOT for what will become the second leg of a HOT-Lane Network.

The I-95/395 BRT/HOT-Lane System Plan includes: the addition of a third lane to the existing two reversible, limited-restriction HOV lanes along I-95 and I-395 and their transition into a 24/7 BRT/HOT-lane operation. The I-95 HOV lanes had originally been designated as BRT or bus lanes.

The Fluor-Transurban plan would extend the system another 28 miles south to Spotsylvania County, almost half the distance to Richmond, for a total of 56 miles. This plan will entail an estimated construction cost of approximately $1 billion including contributing a major investment in transit facilities and park-and-ride lots to encourage transit ridership and carpooling. Unique to this plan is an offer to provide a transit subsidy that could potentially range from $500 million to $1 billion depending on the plan of finance finally selected by VDOT and the payout terms desired.

The capital and operational investments proposed for I-95/395 makes it a truly multi-modal solution for one of the region’s most-traveled corridors, and a logical second phase of a future regional managed-lane network. With timely NEPA approvals construction could start as soon as late 2007 with completion by 2010.

In 2005, the governors of Virginia and Maryland announced they had agreed to study the feasibility for extending managed lanes further along the Capital Beltway. Each is committing $1 million to study extension of the Beltway HOT lanes across both the Legion and Wilson Bridges. Meanwhile, the Maryland State Highway Administration has been developing its own version of managed lanes, called “Express Toll Lanes,” and is considering installing managed lanes on a number of the area’s busiest highways, extending from Maryland’s suburbs around D.C. to the cities of Frederick and Baltimore.

About The Author: Groat is the director of project development at Fluor, Greenville, S.C.

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