DC's Massive New Transportation Experiment Starts Tomorrow

High-tech high-occupancy tolls come to the nation's capital. Is this the future of highway infrastructure?

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Early Saturday morning, the Virginia Department of Transportation will open 14 freshly paved miles of highway on the I-495 Washington Beltway unlike anything drivers in the area have ever seen. The road-widening project has been a decade in the making. And it will constitute, VDOT Secretary Sean T. Connaughton boasted earlier this week, “a high-tech wonder,” the latest and one of the country’s largest attempts at a new generation of highway infrastructure – and a new model of paying for it – that could turn up in cities far from the capital.

The expanded roadway – two lanes in each direction, from the I-95 interchange to Tysons Corner – will be made of High-Occupancy Tolls, or HOT lanes. Carpools of three or more, buses and motorcycles (but not hybrids) can drive them for free. Anyone else who wants in will have to pony up according to a dynamic pricing scheme, and there’s no limit to what that could cost.

The $2 billion system was built in a public-private partnership between the state and Fluor Transurban, an engineering and construction conglomerate. Virginia put up about $400 million. The private firms paid for the rest (with the help of a hefty federal loan) in exchange for the right to collect the toll fees for the next 75 years.

Fluor Transurban is guaranteeing a minimum speed on the HOT lanes of 45 miles an hour. That means the toll price will vary according to demand to maintain the steady flow of traffic. The companies estimate that the average ride will cost between $3 and $6 (tolls will be in effect at all hours of the day, not just during rush hour). But there’s no ceiling to what the system may charge drivers to achieve that goal, if it turns out everyone heading to Tysons Corner is willing to pay a ton of money to get there.

The whole concept has been touted by the state and its private partners as a novel solution to pay for infrastructure, to incentivize carpooling, and to cut down on congestion on the Beltway even for cars traveling in the old-timey lanes.

But the model also invites some uneasy questions: If this infrastructure is now managed by private companies, will their interests always align with the public good? Fluor Transurban, for instance, stands to lose money with every carpool that enters the lanes for free. And isn't there something ethically dubious about enabling drivers who’ve got the money to pay for faster commutes, while low-income commuters continue to pay for transportation with their time?

These toll lanes will offer the equivalent of driving in first class. But some public money did go into providing that premium experience, and the lanes will be patrolled by publicly funded state police.

For transportation engineers, the project poses just as many logistical questions as philosophical ones. Will people really use this system the way Fluor Transurban expects them to? How much will they be willing to pay? And how long will it take drivers to catch on to the new infrastructure? The technology itself is so complex the Washington Post even published a user’s guide for its readers (no, the price of the toll won’t change on you while you’re driving; yes, you will be caught – and pursued by collectors – if you try to beat the system).

Everyone but the motorcyclists must obtain a kind of E-ZPass transponder. Carpools require a special one that toggles between an empty-car setting (pay the toll) and an HOV one that passes into the system for free. This means ad-hoc carpools without the right technology will be out of luck.

Virginia, already convinced the whole idea is a good one, has signed a new contract with the same companies to expand HOT lanes onto I-95 south of the city, where carpools and buses today enjoy a remarkably smooth ride in HOV lanes that they will soon have to share with paying vehicles. This may be good for cash-flush single-occupancy drivers but bad for them. As for whether (or how much) this concept will benefit the whole area on balance – that will take some time to learn. In the meantime, Saturday morning offers an excellent chance to witness thousands of puzzled drivers encountering the high-tech highway of the future for the very first time.

Top image: Aerial view of progress at I-495 and Route 7 Interchange.  Drivers are traveling on a new westbound bridge, while work progresses on a new eastbound bridge. Courtesy of Express Lanes 495

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.