A private toll company is about to get a huge holiday present from Virginia taxpayers, who will again be forced to pay tolls to use the highway they already built and paid for. Why is Virginia about to give away more of your public highways to a private toll company? Where is a finding of public interest before handing over the keys to our existing roads without a competitive bidding process? And how will adding more cars to the already full I-395 HOV lanes improve congestion into DC across the 14th Street bridge complex?
Before VDOT awarded the HOT/Express Lane contract for I-395/95 to Transurban/Fleur, Arlington County filed a lawsuit that sought to derail the project, or at least keep it outside of Arlington. Faced with a well financed lawsuit by a government entity that could drag on for years, VDOT backed down to keep the Express Lane project rolling. The state agency reduced the project’s scope to end around the Alexandria city line. The suit was dropped in 2011, Arlington paid its outside counsel around $1M in fees, and VDOT agreed to do environmental analysis before continuing any Express Lanes on I-395, leaving the door open for a potential expansion in the future.
The result was a Maginot line for private tolling formed on I-395 around Edsall Road. North of the line, regular HOV policies apply at rush hours. South of the line, the express road is controlled by Transurban and their HOT/Express Lane unlimited toll rates apply. The state funded and built new improvements to the northern HOV lanes, in particular a $76 Million massive new interchange and ramps at Seminary Road, near the Mark Center that is slated to open next Spring.
But the future may be here. VDOT believes a new Environmental Assessment will pave the way for more tolls on existing roads. Transurban would be able to push past the line at Edsall Road. And all they need to “build” are E-ZPass antennas and perhaps a sound wall with some minor improvements.
VDOT has released a plan to collaborate further with Transurban, allowing their tolled Express Lanes to extend north to the shores of the Potomac River. Construction to convert the existing HOV lanes to Express Lanes could start as early as 2017, a fairly busy year on VDOT’s calendar of privatized construction. The construction would not take much effort beyond installing toll gantries, since the taxpayers have already funded and built the future private infrastructure.
Details have not been released yet, such as how long the Transurban contract would last for this section, although it is reasonable to assume it would be similar to the six decades that Transurban already controls their I-95 lanes. There is no word if VDOT would seek a non-compete agreement with parallel roads (as VDOT has with I-95), forced taxpayer payments for excessive carpooling (as VDOT must do with I-95 and I-495), or forced payments for a parallel Metro route (as VDOT seeks to do in its draft terms for I-66 Express Lanes).
Why does VDOT believe it can allow and encourage Transurban to push forward toward DC without the legal challenges it fears? VDOT would “guarantee” transit funding, carefully designed to quiet any opponents.
The big question is, why is your state planning to give away a major piece of your infrastructure without a competitive bid? What quiet deals have already been made with an incumbent concessionaire? Why is the state prepared to give away a lucrative No Bid contract that hands over the public’s infrastructure for decades to come?