It looks like the HOV lanes on I-395 may soon become High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. Why did Arlington sue, and is this new plan likely to meet the same fate?

Map of existing and proposed Express Lanes. Map by 395 Express Lanes Project.

A key commuter route, 395 carries traffic into DC from the Beltway. South of Edsall Road, which is just north of the Beltway, 395 has three reversible HOT lanes that continue south onto I-95. North of Edsall, 395 currently has two reversible HOV-3 lanes (meaning they’re only available to vehicles with three passengers or more).

The new plan, which the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced in November, is to widen 395’s existing two reversible HOV-3 lanes to three, and allow non-HOV vehicles to use them in exchange for a toll. The amount of the toll would dynamically fluctuate based on demand in order to maintain the free-flow of traffic in the lanes. Flour-Transurban, the private company that operates 395’s existing HOT lanes, would run the new ones.

The original plan

In 2005, VDOT planned to convert the current HOV lanes on 395 to HOT lanes when the I-95 HOT lanes opened. VDOT and Fluor-Transurban proposed adding the third lane and making all three HOT lanes. The proposal added an access points at Seminary Road, added an access point at Shirlington Circle along with a major re-configuration of that area to speed traffic, and re-worked the interchanges with Washington Boulevard and Eads Street near the Pentagon.

From the start, Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, all voiced concerns about the project. They were:

  • Would this speed or slow existing HOV traffic and buses? The HOT lanes would certainly carry more vehicles, but would they actually move more people or would they simply shift the same number of people into more vehicles?
  • Would adding new access points and reconfiguring Shirlington Circle dump additional traffic onto neighborhood streets and undermine Shirlington’s efforts to be a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented place?
  • Would conflicts arise when the state trusted a private, profit-seeking operator with managing the road?

VDOT declined to provide answers, and the Federal Highway Administration cleared the agency to move forward without formally studying what, exactly, the impact of adding HOT lanes would be. In response, Arlington sued, hoping to force an environmental review.

Arlington prevailed through several initial rounds of procedural jockeying. While Arlington officials continued settlement negotiations behind the scenes, Republican lawmakers took potshots at the predominantly-Democratic county. Despite sharing similar concerns, Alexandria never signed on to Arlington’s lawsuit, realizing that they could share any good outcomes of the litigation without actually having to share Arlington’s legal bill, which ultimately topped $2 million.

In 2011, VDOT announced that it was dropping the original proposal and advancing a new proposal which led to what we have today. The HOV lanes north of Edsall Road remained as-is, a new HOV-only access ramp to Seminary Road went in to accommodate traffic from the BRAC military relocation, and the two HOV lanes south of Edsall became three HOT lanes. Most importantly, they did so through an environmental process culminating in an Environmental Assessment.

As a result of the new proposal, Arlington dropped its lawsuit without any final ruling on its merits. This didn’t stop the General Assembly from punishing Arlington for bringing the lawsuit by revoking some of its taxing authority and withholding a portion of its transportation funding.

How is the new plan different than the old plan? Will Arlington sue again? We’ll talk about it in tomorrow’s post.