Street sign to the Fairfax County Parkway. Image by the author.

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The Fairfax County Parkway will be getting a makeover, and the updated highway could include toll lanes. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Fairfax County Department of Transportation (FCDOT) are now looking for public input on how to improve a 31-mile stretch of the parkway from Route 7 in Herndon to the Route 1 Corridor.

VDOT completed a short term study in 2017 that focused on improvements that could be implemented within the next 10 years. This followup long-term study will assess existing and future transportation issues and develop long-term multimodal solutions, possibly including High Occupancy Toll (HOT) or High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.

HOV lanes are available to carpoolers, buses, and other exempt vehicles without charge, while other vehicles are required to pay a fee that is adjusted in response to demand. Similarly, HOT lanes restrict traffic in designated lanes for vehicles with at least two or three people. The difference is a driver of a car with only one person can also use it if they pay a toll. This can help a municipality further reduce traffic in the regular lanes while monetizing the unused capacity in the express lanes.

Location of the Fairfax County Parkway.

Northern Virginia is not new to these types of lanes. It implemented HOT lanes last December, and cost of tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway has dominated headlines since. Toll lanes also exist along I-95, I-495, and portions of I-395. However, the Fairfax County Parkway is much different than these other roads, and bringing in HOV and HOT lanes would be challenging.

Inside the Beltway on I-66, HOT lanes are implemented during the morning and afternoon rush hours. During that time, commuters either must have two people in their vehicle or pay a toll based on dynamic pricing that updates every six minutes. Solo commuters can avoid tolls by taking other roads, such as US Route 50.

However, this system wouldn’t work along the parkway because many neighborhoods' only outlets are via the parkway. That means residents would be tolled any time they left or entered their neighborhoods during those times.

On I-495, additional lanes were added and used as HOT lanes, but this too has its own set of challenges. Fairfax County Parkway has 83 intersections along the 31-mile stretch which VDOT is studying. Left turns from the regular lanes of the parkway would block the HOV or HOT lanes from traveling through unencumbered. This could be remedied by reconfiguring intersections to remove left turns or adding overpasses, but overpasses are an expensive solution (based on the cost of construction and the additional land needed to accommodate them).

Fairfax County Parkway heading West at Hooes Road.
  Image by the author.

During a presentation at Sangster Elementary School on October 10, Thomas Burke of the FCDOT said at this time there is not much demand for HOV-3 (a driver plus two passengers) on the parkway. However, HOT lanes could leverage the currently-unused capacity of lanes with drivers willing to pay a toll.

As Fairfax County continues to grow, it needs a plan other than just adding lanes. Any solutions that include adding HOT or HOV lanes could support express buses running along the corridor. Without these special lanes, buses will be subject to the same traffic as solo drivers. Route 496 has been proposed with limited stops between the Franconia Springfield Metro Station and the future Herndon Silver Line Station, which is currently a park and ride. This route would greatly benefit from express lanes.

Fairfax County is now seeking your opinion on the future of the parkway. A survey went live on Wednesday, October 17, 2018, and will be open for 30 days. Following the survey, preliminary alternatives will be developed and vetted by the public in the Spring of 2019. The comprehensive plan amendment process is slated to be complete by the beginning of 2020.

Mike Grinnell has worked in the design and construction industry since 1998, and relocated to DC in 2001.  He has a BS in Building Construction from Auburn University and studied Economic Development in grad school at Virginia Tech.  Mike served two terms on the Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee before moving to West Springfield with his wife and two daughters.