New I-495 Express Lanes Present Challenges, But Remain Best Option

by Marc Scribner on November 20, 2012 · 3 comments

in Features, Mobility

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This past Saturday, the innovative I-495 Express Lanes opened on the Washington Beltway. The 14-mile high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes — which were built and are operated under a public-private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and infrastructure companies Transurban and Fluor – provide a quicker and more predictable option to drivers who are willing to pay the variably priced toll (or nothing if they have two or more passengers in their vehicles).

The media have focused on several accidents caused by confused and careless drivers, as well as the fact that driver utilization of the new lanes is still low. In response, Transurban-Fluor will be modifying the southern entrance in an attempt to reduce driver confusion. The indispensable TOLLROADSnews has more details. Unlike some uninformed ideological critics, most transportation practitioners and analysts agree that managed lanes, which include HOT lanes, are one of the small number of tools available to offer drivers relief from congested roads and managers new revenue. The current politics make road expansion nearly impossible and mass transit is impractical for most Americans who reside outside the New York City metropolitan area. This means existing capacity needs to be used more efficiently and variable-priced electronic tolling is the best way to keep traffic flowing.

After a rocky start in October 2011, the Atlanta metro’s I-85 express lanes have seen a 143-percent increase in average weekday traffic and a 29-percent increase in the average daily fare [PDF]. Georgia is now planning future toll lane expansions. It generally takes drivers some time to adapt to new road projects, so it is imprudent to rush to judgement about the viability of these lanes both in terms of use by Northern Virginia drivers and profitability for the private investors. Let’s just wait and see, shall we?

Peter November 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Hi Marc,

You do make some good points in your editorial. Managed (HOV, HOT) lanes are a good option. From a cost perspective, however, states must make sure that the cost of constructing these lanes, especially if traffic risk is being shared with a private partner (such as the case of Virginia’s 495 HOT lanes), are worth it. Florida’s I-95 HOT lanes still haven’t met expectations (see a study by S&P last year on that very subject).

I personally predict that we will see more deals in which states share traffic risk with private sector partners. While there have been successful transportation public-private partnerships (P3s) such as 495 and I-95 in Virginia, there also have been ones that have been financial disasters such as the Indiana Toll Road and SR-125 and SR-90 out in California.

Also, safety has to be a concern, and back-room deals should not be a part of the process when the state engages in deals with private sector partners. For example, it remains to be seen what the accident rate will be on Texas’ SH130, given that the Texas DOT raised the speed limit to 85 mph in order to get an extra $100 million from Cintra, the private company that is charged with buildin, financing, operating and maintaining that road.

Laura December 14, 2012 at 11:24 am

HOT Lane HOV is considered 3+ passengers, not 2+

Marc Scribner December 14, 2012 at 1:03 pm

No, that’s incorrect. HOV-3 is three people (one driver plus two passengers).

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