Putting a Price on D.C.'s Worst Commute

I-95 south of the nation's capital has some of the worst traffic in the country. Next year, you'll be able to buy your way out of it.

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WASHINGTON—For a few giddy moments, it seems I've dodged the torture awaiting commuters into Washington, D.C., most any weekday morning. As I merge onto Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 50 miles from the Pentagon, the traffic around me glides along at the 65-mph speed limit. No brake lights illuminate the predawn dark. I set my cruise control. Perhaps, I dare to think, this won't be so bad.

The illusion ends before I've covered a mile. Without warning or obvious reason, the highway's flow thickens to a viscous dribble. My speed drops to 30, then 15, then an idling roll slower than I can walk. It remains there for a minute before shuddering to zero. I sit.

It's 6:30 a.m. on a typical Monday on the outskirts of the nation's capital, and I'm mired in traffic the Texas A&M Transportation Institute reckons to be the worst in America, trumping even the titanic freeway logjams of Los Angeles. Here are highways so notoriously overtaxed that even on weekends, "speed" is more lovely abstraction than realistic goal. Here is a circumferential interstate — the famed Washington Beltway — that has become synonymous with stress.

Of all of Washington's snarled roads, perhaps none are more feared, despised, and lamented than the roughly 41 miles of I-95 between Fredericksburg and the Beltway, and I-395's nine-mile spur from there to the Potomac. It's a journey that should take under an hour but typically takes two or more in the morning. And in the evening, half again as long.

My Camry inches northward, the sky lightening to a leaden gray, the air stinking of overheated brakes. For two generations, Virginia transportation officials have battled the route's glacial pace with a succession of innovative prescriptions. In 1969, they installed the first reversible bus lanes in America, on I-395. A few years later they built carpooling in the same lanes — the country's first courtship with high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Later they extended HOV 18 miles southward, into the fast-rising suburbs and exurbs straddling I-95.

The route remains a quagmire, just the same. So now the state is embarking on another fix. With financing from private investors, Virginia is converting the HOV lanes south of Washington to high occupancy-toll lanes, or HOT lanes. These express lanes, like 20-some similar projects in cities from coast to coast, will enable solo motorists to drive alongside carpoolers — for a price.

If the new system works as the Virginia Department of Transportation hopes, it will cull a fat number of commuters from I-95's general-purpose lanes and speed the trip for everyone. The private investors may earn enough in tolls to retire their debts and make some money to boot. But the new arrangement differs from those already in place elsewhere, and with the differences come questions about how much relief it can offer. Some won't be resolved until the new lanes are up and running early next year.

All of which is to say that we're soon to witness a complex and very expensive experiment.

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The rush-hour nightmare in northern Virginia is partly the product of topography. Geographic obstructions funnel travel into a narrow corridor occupied by I-95 and its smaller and equally congested parent, U.S. 1, and little else. It's also partly the product of Northern Virginia real estate, which rises in price as distance from the District (and the exasperations of the daily commute) falls. Not many years ago, Fredericksburg was an inconceivable distance for daily commuting; not so today, and the suburbs continue to spread like a stain, pushing farther south and west every year.

Courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT's attempts to address the corridor's congestion by siphoning traffic from the general-purpose lanes have succeeded, at least in part. The bus lanes proved a hit 45 years ago — a Washington Post rush-hour race into the District saw a bus beat a car by 32 minutes, and before long bus commuters outnumbered their automotive counterparts on I-395. Likewise, the HOV lanes have consistently moved more people than the regular lanes at rush hour, according to VDOT. In fact, says the agency, they're the most successful HOV lanes in the country.

Be that as it may, the lanes are underused. As I sit immobile in my Camry at Dumfries, where the HOV lanes now have their southern terminus — and where an electronic sign predicts that I won't reach the Beltway for another 52 minutes — the procession of cars entering the faster lanes amounts to a slim rivulet leaving the interstate's main flow.

So the state partnered with a joint venture of two private firms — the Texas-based Fluor Corporation and an Australian toll road outfit, Transurban Group — to convert the existing I-95 HOV lanes to accept toll-paying customers, and to extend them into Stafford County, Virginia, 27 miles south of the Beltway. As originally planned, the reversible HOT lanes would continue inside the Beltway in the median of I-395 to the District's very edge: the 14th Street Bridge, where the highway crosses the Potomac. Drivers using the lanes would enjoy a high-speed shot from the far-flung suburbs all the way into town.

In fact, they're all but guaranteed that. A key part of the $922.6 million deal — under which the state will supply $82.6 million of the project's cost, and Fluor-Transurban will pony up the balance in cash and debt — is that the HOT lanes will keep flowing at 55 mph. 

Fluor-Transurban, which will recoup its investment through the toll income it generates over 76 years, will maintain that flow through "dynamic" pricing, which makes a commodity of a commuter's time. "There is a value to a less-congested lane that someone driving alone might be willing to pay for," says Philip Shucet, a Norfolk-based consultant who led VDOT as the agreement took shape. "Congestion creates a demand for a freer-flowing lane; therefore, because of the demand, you can charge for the supply of that lane."

Fifty minutes into my journey, traffic in I-95's general-purpose lanes chugs along at 15 mph. HOV traffic, a blur to my left, shares the median with towering heaps of dirt and earth-moving gear. Construction of the new HOT lanes is nearly 70 percent complete, according to Fluor-Transurban, and on schedule for an early 2015 opening.

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A taste of what motorists can expect is already available in the capital region, for the I-95 project is the second phase of two in the state's partnership with Fluor-Transurban. The first was the installation of HOT lanes on a 14-mile stretch of the Beltway's curving western side, from its junction with I-95 north to just above the Dulles Toll Road. Portions of the highway now shoulder nearly a quarter-million vehicles a day.

Renderings of traffic flows on the 95 Express Lanes. (Via Transurban Operations Inc)

The 495 Express Lanes, as they're officially called, opened in November 2012 after four years of construction. They cost $2.07 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration, which covered the replacement of more than 50 bridges and overpasses and the creation of several new HOT-only entry and exit points. The public-private pact is structured much like that on I-95: in exchange for covering most of the bill ($349 million in cash, plus debt service on more than $1 billion in loans and bonds), Fluor-Transurban will operate the lanes for the coming 74 years, after which they revert to the state.

"VDOT owns the road," says Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk. "We're essentially just renting."

The Beltway lanes are not reversible. Rather, two in each direction are separated from the general-purpose lanes by a line of flexible pylons and linked to exits by dedicated ramps. When I entered them on a weekday midmorning in early March, the whole northbound trip cost $6.75; reaching the I-66 interchange would set me back $3.35, and the edge city of Tysons Corner, $5.05.

Those prices struck me as steep until I buzzed past stacking traffic on the regular lanes at Annandale, a denser clog at I-66, and a mile-long clot at Tysons Corner. The Camry was making a steady 72 mph. I covered the 14 miles in under 14 minutes, which was downright surreal on that road at that time of day.

When I headed the other way, against the traffic, the toll was $2.55 all the way to the Springfield Interchange, where the Beltway meets I-95 and the I-395 spur into town. I didn't have to hunt for change. Both Virginia projects are designed to accept only electronic payment, through a transponder affixed to each vehicle's windshield. Those motorists who travel alone can use a regular EZ Pass, and those who carpool, an EZ Pass Flex.

The Flex model features a switch that converts the unit from toll-paying to HOV operation. When a driver enters the HOT lanes toting fewer than two passengers, the Flex unit operates as a standard EZ Pass. But drivers that qualify for HOV status merely need flip a switch on the box, excusing the car from the toll. As the vehicle approaches the HOT lanes, an electronic receiver will detect the transponder's HOV setting and alert a Virginia State Trooper posted nearby (and paid for by the partnership) to eyeball the passing vehicle to ensure that it's playing by the rules.

"They also have technology in their cars that can communicate with the infrastructure," says McGurk of the troopers. "So even if they're traveling behind a car, they'll know whether that car has identified itself as an HOV vehicle."

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Now for the questions, the first being: Will the I-95 HOT lanes attract a sufficient number of non-HOV users to make a dent in the traffic? So far the Beltway lanes have not enticed the number of motorists, or generated the level of revenues, the partners expected. Last year, Transurban figured it would take in $60.2 million; revenues actually totaled less than a third of that amount ($17.2 million). Weekday use was expected to reach 66,000 trips by year's end; reality delivered about 38,000.

This is in keeping with the early performance of HOT lanes in other U.S. metro areas. Revenues have disappointed in Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle. McGurk blames the novelty of the experience. "It's the first time D.C. has ever seen dynamic tolling, and an EZ Pass requirement," he says. "There's some education left to do. There are still a significant number of drivers out there who do not have an EZ Pass. It's taking some time for people to understand how to take advantage."

Even so, says McGurk, "there are good trends." Toll income rose 18 percent from the second to third quarter of last year, and by another 24.2 percent by year's end, despite a flattening in the number of trips in the lanes late in 2013. Usage jumped by more than 60 percent over the first year of operation, he says, and Transurban has "heard great feedback from customers who take the route." The consortium, which recently refinanced its obligations, anticipates "consistent growth."

An important lesson is that "people tend to use it episodically, rather than all the time," says J. Douglas Koelemay, director of Virginia's Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships. "The morning they have that early meeting, it's important for them to move quickly, and they're happy to pay the toll. On other days, when they're not in such a hurry, maybe they don't mind taking longer." Fluor-Transurban "recognizes that it's building a long-term business," says Koelemay, noting that the consortium has refinanced the venture.

There are other broad questions — including the ongoing debate about whether or not HOT lanes are fair to low-income drivers — but in the case of the I-95 project there's one especially vexing worry. As a result of a legal standoff with Arlington County, the I-95 HOT lanes will now extend only 29 miles, to just inside the Beltway, instead of stretching 36 miles and taking commuters all the way from the exurbs to the Potomac. At this abrupt end point, the interstate's express lanes will become HOV-only. Toll-paying motorists will be dumped back into the general population.

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By the time I reach the Springfield Interchange I've been on the road for 61 minutes. Just after sunup I slip beneath an overpass marking the first exit on I-395, at Edsall Road. Up ahead, crews are already at work in the median on the primer-painted bones of a massive flyover, which arcs from the future HOT lanes, curves over northbound I-395, and swoops down to merge into the freeway's slow lane. This is the Turkeycock flyover, the northern terminus of the HOT lanes project. Here, seven miles shy of the Potomac, toll-paying commuters will be forced to leave their carpooling fellow travelers to rejoin 395's stop-and-start traffic.

Construction of the 495 Express Lanes near Tysons Corner. (Via Fluor)

What will happen? Will monolithic jams erupt as the merging traffic re-enters the mainstream? Does the project merely relocate and compress the morning nightmare? Will commuters, recognizing that the HOT lanes offer them an express ride to gridlock, forego the toll route altogether?

"I don't know how that's going to work," says Mark Dudenhefer, a former state delegate from Stafford County who suffers the I-95 commute every weekday. "How would you like to be the guy who pays whatever the toll is — from, say, $5 to $15 — and you don't get to where you need to go? You get forced back into the regular lanes, and you have bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic. What have you really saved? It's difficult to understand."

This is no idle worry, for the I-395 leg of the commute is often the toughest, as I find during my excursion. It takes me 23 minutes to cover the less than three miles from the Turkeycock flyover to the Arlington County line, which I cross at 2 mph. It takes another 18 to traverse the roughly four miles to the Pentagon's southwest corner, looming off to the highway's left. Another five minutes moves me half the length of the building's south wall.

The partners forged on, says Steve Titunik, a VDOT spokesman, because commuting times should nonetheless fall. The surviving mileage includes a new general-purpose lane and dedicated HOT lane ramps at one busy cross-street that should loosen the knot on I-395. Dudenhefer, who says he was involved in the project's early stages as a county supervisor, says holding out for a perfect solution could leave everyone in the same place 15 years from now.

"I don't think we could afford to wait," he says.

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This thing could go any number of ways. It could spawn new and fearsome jams on I-395, choking Arlington County with the exhaust of idling legions of cars. It could prove an improvement over the current, wearying daily grind. It could convince commuters who've shied away from carpooling that HOV is the only practical way to get a car into D.C. The HOT lanes could be so popular, and inspire so fierce a public demand for their extension to the Potomac, that talks between state and county resume.

Fact is, there's no telling what will happen, which makes the 95 Express Lanes' opening in ten or eleven months an occasion worth watching. Koelemay figures the truncated project, while "not the final or most elegant solution," is "in itself important." It'll bring some relief, he predicts. "And it does not preclude our coming to an agreement with Arlington to go into Arlington or through Arlington. If you do it in a way that doesn't diminish your opportunity to get to the next piece, I think you're OK.

"Urban areas are never finished," he says. "They're always changing."

In the short term, some commuters may be satisfied by any tonic to their daily pain, no matter how mild. My experiment ends at 8:35 a.m., when I pull off I-395 just shy of the river and meander my way to Reagan National Airport. I have spent 125 minutes in the car. I have driven exactly 50 miles. By current standards, that's not a particularly bad start to the day.

Top image: Rafal Olkis/Shutterstock.com

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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