|The beltway as seen from the Gallows Road overpass in Annandale.|
The opening of the Express Lanes on the beltway, Saturday, Nov. 17, at 2 a.m., ushers in a new era of transportation in the Annandale area.
For the first time, beltway drivers will have to decide whether it’s worth paying a toll to drive on the inner Express Lanes, which are supposed to be faster and less congested than the regular lanes.
The Express Lanes “will undo some of the gridlock up here,” Gov.Robert McDonnell said at an opening ceremony Nov. 13. “That is good news for traffic-weary Northern Virginia.” The ribbon-cutting at the Sheraton Premiere Hotel in Tysons Corner drew scores of state legislators, state and federal officials, county leaders, state police troopers, construction workers, and officials from the private companies that worked on the project.
You can probably expect some confusion for a while, as drivers adjust to the new system. The 14-mile stretch of Express Lanes has “dynamic pricing,” with the toll amount rising as traffic increases—up to $1.25 a mile for the busiest times.
Drivers using the Express Lanes will need to get an E-ZPass (50 cents a month) that automatically charges drivers’ online accounts. Drivers who often transport three or more people should probably get an E-ZPass Flex ($1 a month) with a switch to indicate they have a high-occupancy vehicle, which means they can use the Express Lanes for free. You’ll need to deposit $35 in your toll account to get either type of pass.
McDonnell told the audience the $2.8 billion project wouldn’t have been possible without public private collaboration and the innovative arrangement proposed by the Transurban and Fluor companies. The Transurban-Fluor partnership contributed $1.5 billion in exchange for an agreement allowing them to keep the toll revenue for 75 years.
“It’s a real win win,” added Rep. Gerry Connolly about the partnership, who said, “it took lots of collaboration to create a new model for funding infrastructure.”
“We’re looking at this as a model for leveraging scarce resources for big public projects in the future,” the governor said. Transurban-Fluor has already started working on a similar public-private partnership for high-occupancy toll lanes on I-95.
“You see pavement. I see jobs,” McDonnell told the audience, citing the $3.5 billion the beltway project pumped into Virginia’s economy. More than 200 Virginia-based subcontractors worked on the project, he said. Transurban CEO Scott Charlton said the project created 20,000 jobs.
“You don’t have to use the HOT lanes, but they are there if you need them,” Connolly said. “It is creating choices for commuters,” although “it will never solve congestion.”
The Express Lanes will encourage carpooling, predicted Victor Mendez, head of the Federal Highway Administration. “Whether you use the HOT lanes or not, you’ll spend less time stuck in traffic.” He noted the project received $589 million in federal loans under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.
Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, lauded Transurban-Fluor’s “Orange Cones, No Phones” campaign for changing drivers’ habits by discouraging distracted driving in construction zones.
The project includes more than 58 new bridges and ramps, but “it’s more than concrete and asphalt,” Connaughton said. It’s “truly a high-tech wonder,” with cables, sensors, and cameras built into the system to monitor traffic volume, set toll amounts, advise drivers of the current rates, and take videos to enforce the carpool restrictions.
According to Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay (Lee District), by easing congestion, the Express Lanes will result in fewer people cutting through neighborhoods to avoid the beltway. And he said the $33 million worth of new sound walls “triples the amount of noise protection” for nearby communities.
McKay said the county is adding new bus routes to Tysons Corner that will take advantage of the Express Lanes. A new Fairfax County Connector route from Burke will start in January, and routes form Lorton and Springfield will start next spring.
|The ribbon-cutting ceremony.|