Is Virginia Building Highways For Single Occupancy Vehicles?

When new toll lanes open early next year along I-95 in Northern Virginia, stretching nearly 30 miles between the I-395 interchange and Stafford County, project leaders expect that one of the most successful HOV corridors in the country will continue to attract carpoolers to job centers inside the regional core.

The 95 Express Lanes will offer commuters a choice: ride in an HOV-3 carpool and your trip will be free; if you choose to drive alone or with just one other person you will have to pay a toll for a faster trip, or grin and bear it in the potentially congested non-toll lanes running parallel to the new EZ Pass-only toll corridor.

495 offers poor example of HOV use

Given the existing levels of carpooling and slugging, project managers at the Australia-based construction conglomerate Transurban believe the 95 Express Lanes will keep attracting such commuters. It is a different picture on I-495 on the Beltway, Transurban’s first HOV/toll lanes experiment in Northern Virginia that opened in November 2012.

Only 9 percent of all trips on the 495 Express Lanes, which run 14 miles from the 395/95 interchange to the Dulles Toll Road, were exempted from paying a toll, according to Transurban’s most recent quarterly report. That means no more than nine out of every 100 vehicles were HOV-3 carpoolers, buses, motorcycles, or emergency vehicles in the June quarter, or roughly 3,200 vehicles per day.

The 495 Express Lanes were sold to the public as more than just a toll road for single drivers. Buses would be able to take advantage of the congestion-free lanes, too. But bus ridership has been paltry.

The Fairfax Connector designed three routes to connect commuters to jobs in Tysons from Lorton, Springfield and Burke via I-495. The three routes have a combined average weekly ridership of only 770 passengers, according to figures compiled by the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

It would appear Transurban spent $2 billion, with a contribution of more than $400 million from Virginia taxpayers, to build a highway for single-occupant vehicles, a seeming contradiction to the region-wide goal of reducing auto dependency.

A different carpooling story

The 95 Express Lanes will cost $1 billion to complete. Will it be another highway for the SOV? Current HOV levels indicate I-95 could be different.

More than 6,500 vehicles travel northbound in the I-95 HOV lanes during morning rush hour (6 a.m. to 9 a.m.) on a typical weekday, according to 2013 data provided by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Roughly 20 percent of these vehicles are single-occupant, meaning they are violating the HOV rules unless they are hybrids.

“Everyone out there who is vanpooling, carpooling and slugging on a regular basis today, we want them to transition to that EZ Pass Flex toll-free ride on the express lanes,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.

Transit advocates are wary Virginia will have built 45 miles of new lanes (495 and 95 combined) that induce more SOV commuting.

“The concern we have is that once… people have the option of driving alone and just paying to do it, often with employer commute benefits, the result could be a collapse of the slugging system,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Regional planners are facing the reality that despite anticipated growth in transit ridership many people will continue to get to work by driving a car alone, significantly more so in the outer suburbs than inside the regional core. But planners concede paving ever more highway lanes will not free us from congestion, either.

Planners still positive on traffic density

The population of the Washington metropolitan region is expected to increase by 24 percent by 2040, with the demand on roadways far outpacing the expected growth in lane miles. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) predicts 39 percent of all daily trips will be by single drivers in 2040, down from 42 percent today.

Combining long-term investments in bus, commuter rail, and streetcar lines with more sensible land-use policies will make a difference, said Robert Griffiths, the acting co-director of transportation planning at MWCOG. He said the 9 percent HOV rate on I-495 should not be seen as a disappointment less than two years after the highway opened.

“Nine percent of daily users is actually pretty impressive given the fact that you are just looking at the facility on a short segment of the Beltway that serves largely suburban employment sites,” Griffiths said.

“You do have the Tysons Corner area as an anchor, but compared to areas in downtown Washington or the core areas of Arlington County like the Pentagon and Rosslyn, employment in the 495 corridor is a little more dispersed, so it is very hard to get a three-person carpool on a consistent basis,” he said.

“I would also expect that when the I-95 HOV lanes open next year… you are going to see the number of carpoolers increase,” he added.

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Photo courtesy of WAMU.