I-66 Congestion? Do “Something!”

Like many urban and suburban freeways around the country, I-66 gets congested.  The local politicians want to do something about it.  Sounds great!  Unfortunately there is a disconnect between the desire to fix a problem and the actual solution.

Some local politicians are saying, “something has to be done.”  Governor McAuliffe directed his Virginia Department of (Road) Transportation to devise “a plan that will reduce congestion on I-66 by increasing capacity and giving travelers more choices.”

So will their only chosen scheme: remove the green arrow free peak lane and build lanes with expensive tolls, actually work?

A traveler on I-95 decided to use the “More Choices” and chose to pay the expensive ($11.20) toll to go a few miles in the so-called Express Lanes.   Here is their account, told to Dr. Gridlock at the Washington Post:

[This traveler’s comment came in last Monday, July 20.]
The I-95 Express Lanes are a complete failure in my opinion… I had a wedding to attend in Fredericksburg on Saturday, and was traveling south on I-95 around 11:00 AM. I got on at 123, and the regular lanes were the typical bumper to bumper.
I figured the Express Lanes would save me at least 15 minutes, so I shrugged off the $11.20 toll displayed in the hopes of making it on time. Little did I know that I would be sitting in even worse bumper to bumper traffic from Dumfries all the way to Garrisonville.
It was a complete disaster, and for a trip that used to take 2 hours on a really bad day, took 3 hours and cost me an extra $11.20. I can’t believe I got suckered into taking these lanes…NEVER AGAIN!!! I’m considering filing a complain requesting a refund, but I doubt they would do anything.” -http://live.washingtonpost.com/gridlock0727.html

So are the Express Lanes a solution or a flim-flam?  Imagine paying a lot of money for a “consistent and reliable trip at highway speeds,” only to find out that the “Express Lanes”  lead you to even more congestion and an exorbitant toll too.  Is this highway robbery scheme a model to expand elsewhere?

Surely, for some folks willing to pay the tolls this may help in some places.  Some folks carpooling with HOV-3 may also benefit.  But these toll lanes must incentivize congestion to be successful, which is why the existing Express Lanes contracts need to penalize the taxpayers if too many carpoolers and buses use the lane.  These same Comprehensive Agreement contracts also force taxpayers to pay the private toll companies for decades if improvements are made to the free lanes or parallel routes (e.g. improvements to Occoquan Bridge and US 1 specifically require taxpayers to compensate the private toll company).  The big winners of the Express Lanes are the folks profiting from the tolls.

In short, in order to make commutes better for a select group, everybody else must suffer.  Even the folks paying the terrible tolls suffer in congestion,  as the above example shows.  But will Virginia’s politicians begin to recognize bad public policy before it is too late?

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5 Responses to I-66 Congestion? Do “Something!”

  1. Lisa Comras says:

    This is something that we have been saying for nearly a year – it is tragic that the politicians think that Express/HOT lanes are the answer – just because they are taking off like wildfire throughout the country. Express/HOT lanes are NOT the answer – and frittering away your childs college tuition or 401(k) to ride them, is not a good idea.
    Better solutions, better planning is KEY. Since VDOT is only responsible for roads/bridges and highways – congestion solutions will never improve.
    “Multi-modal” is thrown around liberally but the solutions are really only one-prong. “Multi-modal” means highway solutions, rail solutions (Metro/VRE), Bus systems.
    We need more politicians that recognize this and fight for better public policy.
    Virginian’s are losing this Express/HOT lanes battle – one paved mile at a time!

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  2. Mark S. says:

    HOT Express Lanes are the best solution for urban highway improvements(Violation legislation should be improved).

    The main issues are the population growth rate in Stafford/Fredericksburg and having only route 1 and I-95 as major crossings over the Rappahannock River. (Land Use planning is the major issue, not express lanes)

    I-66 will not have as big of a problem compared to I-95 due to the conservation easements in Fauquier County.

    The driver probably did save 15 minutes(For his $11.25) but that is insignificant during a 3 hour trip. It still would have taken three+ hours if the merge was in Dumfries with no time savings. They should build separate express lanes (2 in each direction) between Aquia and south of Fredericksburg.

    All of this would not have been an issue if the express lanes were build between Spotsylvania and the Pentagon as originally planned.

    I believe VDOT is heading down the right path.

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    • Bryan says:

      I appreciate the comments. VDOT’s agreements require the state to pay the private toll company for too many carpoolers and buses, plus require taxpayers to pay the toll company for improvements to alternative roads such as US 1 and the Occoquan bridge for 70+ years. VDOT’s motives are revealed in their draft agreements for I-66, which include payments if the Orange Line is improved. Since we are told that it is all but impossible to extend the Orange Line even to Fair Oaks, why would they need to put this in an agreement at the expense of taxpayers?

      VDOT is now implementing spot improvements to I-495 north of Tysons and on I-66 in Haymarket, yet will be prohibited from making spot improvements for seven decades on I-95 and I-495 without paying compensation to the private toll company.

      Wiping out transit oriented communities to pave the way for more development far away from the employment centers is not smart planning. Requiring taxpayers to pay $11+ for the hope of a better commute is not smart planning either.

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      • Mark S. says:

        The state’s requirement to pay compensation will not apply if the facility reaches a defined ROI. Based on initial data, I-95 should have no trouble meeting this criteria, I-495 is a little more iffy.

        Hopefully, they implement an “open” concept between Nutley and I-495 to reduce the impact on the Dunn Loring area.

        “Requiring users to pay $XX for a better commute from the exurbs is smart planning”

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      • Bryan says:

        Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening on I-95. The current percentage of HOV/bus is almost at the threshold where taxpayers would have to fork over cash to the concessionaire. (Recall this project was sold as the “private company assumes the risk.”)

        VDOT has dismissed the open section between Nutley and I-495 and as of August 2015 is still committed to destroying Dunn Loring and nearby elementary school fields, etc. with an Express Lane project–private or public.

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