This is part two in a series the 395 HOT lanes. Read part 1 to understand what happened the last time they were proposed.
VDOT has proposed converting HOV lanes on I-395 into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. But Arlington seems receptive this time. What’s different?
New plan differences
Unlike last time, VDOT has committed to doing an environmental assessment from the start. The agency is also doing a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) study to “identify transit, carpool, vanpool and other demand strategies that can improve travel along the corridor.”
The proposal includes “guaranteed funding” for new and enhanced transit service and carpooling incentives, though the amount of funding is still under negotiation. Unlike the prior plan, it leaves the Shirlington Circle interchange as-is and would keep the currently under-construction Seminary Road access ramp restricted to HOV use.
Questions remain about design, transit, and bicycle accommodations
Despite the changes to the proposal, Virginia transporation officials still need to answer many of the questions and concerns raised last time around and work to mitigate any potential negative impacts from the HOT lanes.
While the proposal adds capacity with a third lane, it also allows cars with fewer than three occupants, meaning additional traffic. Will this speed up or slow down the existing HOV and bus traffic? Slowing down HOV traffic would lessen the incentive to carpool. And slowing down buses would lessen the incentive to use public transit, as well as raising the operating and capital costs for local transit agencies.
One of those agencies, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, lost $1.5 million in federal funding when the 95 HOT lanes opened. What impact will the conversion have on transit funding for other local transit agencies?
There are other significant issues with safety, accommodating travelers without cars, and working the plan in with other transportation plans in the area.
VDOT claims that construction will not require taking of any residential properties or significant rights-of-way. Other than the construction of new sound walls, officials believe they can fit the third lane into the existing footprint of the HOV lanes. But that could require making the shoulders narrower or even removing them, which could impact safety, access for emergency vehicles, and the reliability of travel times.
It seems like every major highway expansion, from the 495 HOT lanes to the Intercounty Connector includes a major transit element, and yet they rarely seem to materialize or are quickly phased out. It’s unknown how much money this plan guarantees for transit and TDM and who will determine how it is spent.
Likewise, the plan misses an opportunity to add to Northern Virginia’s trail network, like the existing Custis Trail proposed trails along I-66. And it’s unclear whether the plan will do anything to mitigate tree loss, which was a major issue with the I-95 Express lanes.
Virginia learned a tough lesson with the existing 95 HOT lanes: Eventually all HOT lanes have to end, and the merge situation when they do can create major backups. The 395 HOT lane extension would end at or near the already-congested 14th Street Bridge. How will VDOT avoid exacerbating an already ugly situation there and can they coordinate with DC’s slow-moving initiative to add a network of HOT lanes within DC, including on the 14th Street Bridge?
The way the contract is written gives Virginia an incentive to discourage carpooling in the HOT lanes. The 395 HOT lanes will be governed by the existing contract the commonwealth has with Fluor-Transurban which requires Virginia to reimburse the firm if the facility carries “too many” HOV users.
I-395 and I-66 are very different
Comparisons between the plans for I-66 inside the beltway and I-395 HOT lane plans are easy to make; both would convert existing HOV lanes into HOT lanes and both would provide funding for transit. Beyond that, however, they differ quite significantly.
I-395 has, and would continue to have un-tolled, unrestricted lanes in addition to the HOT lanes. I-66 would consist of only HOT lanes. The I-395 HOT lanes would charge tolls at all times; the I-66 lanes would only charge during rush hour, and only in the peak direction.
The I-395 HOV lanes are already HOV-3 only; the I-66 lanes are HOV-2. The I-395 HOT lanes will be paid for by a private partner; the I-66 HOT lanes will be paid for by Virginia.
The cumulative effect of the differences in cost, alternatives options and existing HOV level shift the conversation being had about effectiveness and impact on surrounding jurisdictions enough that support or opposition for one doesn’t necessarily translate into similar feelings on the other.
The plan is more predictable and it gives the local governments a say
The changes in the latest HOT lanes proposal appear tailor-made to reduce push-back and ease approval by making the effects of the proposal easier to predict and understand. It requires almost no land acquisition, changes the existing highway interchanges as little as possible, uses an existing vendor under an existing contract, commits to funding transit and TDM, and will include an environmental process from the outset.
The environmental process ensures that the public and the jurisdictions will have the leverage they need to ensure their questions get answered. Until they are, however, we can’t know whether this proposal will help or harm. If Arlington sues again, or some other jurisdiction does, it likely won’t be because they can’t get their questions answered, it will be because they don’t like the answers.
What question do you have? What should the public and jurisdictions be certain of before deciding whether to move forward with HOT lanes on 395?