Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.
The facile claims of many leaders and a number of news reports have fed misconceptions about the Virginia HOT lanes project. The biggest danger of all with this project is that it’s very likely to slow down, not speed up, existing carpoolers and buses.
Myth 3: The HOT lanes will speed up travel in the 95/395 corridor.
Right now, traffic generally moves swiftly in the HOV lanes, giving sluggers and bus riders a quick ride to the Pentagon, downtown, and other major job centers.
Once Transurban takes over control of the lanes, they will understandably want to maximize their profit. The more people pay a toll, the more money they make. The more cars enter the lanes, of course, the slower traffic will move. However, as long as the lanes are moving even moderately faster than the often very crowded free lanes, enough people will pay tolls.
Therefore, Transurban’s natural profit motive will be to fill up the lanes as much as possible, but only until traffic slows down to the point where people stop paying for the extra benefit. If that means that the carpools and buses are driving 10 miles per hour slower than they do today, well, those carpools and buses aren’t their customers. They’re not paying tolls. So who cares?
Arlington asked VDOT to include a provision in the contract forcing Transurban to manage the road to keep traffic flowing at the speed limit, 55 inside the Beltway and 65 outside. But VDOT refused.
Instead, they lowered the target speed to 45 miles per hour. That’s the lowest permitted for a “transit facility” receiving federal funding, which 95/395 HOV lanes qualify as because of the high volume of buses.
In short, with this project, the state of Virginia is planning to lower the speed of travel on 95 and 395 in the special lanes.
If each bus takes longer to travel up and down 95 and 395, Northern Virginia governments will have to buy more buses and pay people to drive them at huge cost. That dwarfs any money Arlington has spent on this lawsuit. It’ll also make transit a less appealing mode of travel, cutting down on ridership.
Myth 4: Arlington sued “rather than press for solutions.”
The Washington Post knew about this and other problems. That didn’t stop them from penning a bizarre editorial last Friday:
There were legitimate questions about the project, including whether solo drivers would clog the so-called high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and what to do decades from now if the project’s engineering, traffic or financial projections turn out to have been miscalculated. After all, the state would cede control of the project to the private partnership, potentially leaving taxpayers will little recourse.
Rather than press for solutions, however, Arlington did its best to halt progress, and it succeeded.
In other words, it’s unseemly for a county to sue to block a road project no matter how intransigent the state has been or how many big problems crop up with the project’s structure. The overwhelming need to build roads, no matter the cost, trumps all.
But as letters from county officials bear out, Arlington avidly tried to press for solutions. The problem was that VDOT ignored them and the Bush Administration gave them a Categorical Exclusion, granting a free pass to ignore those questions.
Pressing for solutions is exactly what this letter from Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria was doing. It asked for specific answers to very specific questions, including the bus speeds and many more.
Myth 5: VDOT didn’t move ahead with the lanes because the lawsuit was blocking their ability to proceed.
The Post editorial also claimed Arlington “succeeded” in blocking progress. Did it really?
State officials told us back in 2009 why they stopped the project:
“This is not a good time to be bringing forward a project like this,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, who said the cost of debt financing and the amount of equity required would have been too great to immediately move forward.
He said community concerns about traffic on Seminary Road and at the Shirlington rotary also weighed into the decision.
The lawsuit appears nowhere in Homer’s explanation. In fact, the lawsuit hadn’t even been filed at the time. Virginia didn’t move ahead because the financing didn’t work.
And InsideNova reported, “Homer also stated that planners will take additional time to examine concerns posed by Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what they did. Faced with a fiscally impossible project, local and state Republican leaders instead spent a year taking political potshots at liberal Arlington to score personal points.
A big part of the project’s fiscal difficulty came from the design inside the Beltway. There, given the dense neighborhoods the road travels through, the design called for adding a third lane inside the footprint of the existing roadway.
That would have narrowed lanes, removed shoulders, and violated Interstate standards in a number of ways that would have required federal waivers. It also would have created some expensive construction work.
By cutting out the 395 portion, VDOT didn’t appease Arlington. What they did was to delete the expensive piece of their project, giving the rest more of a reasonable chance for financing.
Americans want better transportation but don’t want to pay for it. HOT lanes are a clever gimmick to get something built without paying for it, but it doesn’t quite work. Except where roads had been built with giant medians ready-made for HOT lanes, the tolls still don’t cover construction costs.
Myth 6: Fairfax and Prince William Counties support the project.
Fairfax does conditionally support it, but has many concerns as outlined in the above letter. Prince William passed a resolution opposing the project as proposed, and actually considered joining the lawsuit.
“Some are worried about giving false hope to commuters that the suit will be successful, but from my perspective, we need to proceed,” Prince William Chairman Corey Stewart told the WBJ. “If there is a chance of slowing them down or reducing the negative impact, we have to do everything we can.”
That’s right, back in 2009 people were discussing this issue based on the merits, since a Democratic governor was pushing it and other Democratic leaders opposing it. Then, suddenly a Republican governor got elected and it turned into a partisan issue.
Now it’s Fairfax Republican Pat Herrity and ultra-conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli leading the charge, even after the lawsuit was dropped. Scoring political points was too much of a temptation even once the issue became moot.
The principal criticism of the lawsuit has always been that the lawsuit calls people racists. Herrity charged, “[Arlington] even resorted to claims of racism and sued a federal worker for personal damages—a dangerous precedent for all our federal, state and local government workers just doing their jobs. And because of Arlington’s actions, the commonwealth is pulling the plug on the HOT lanes project inside the Beltway.”
We already know that last part is false. What about the rest of it? That’ll be the subject for our last and final installment.