Virginia is thinking about taking a different approach to toll roads.
After ceding future toll revenue on the I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes to the private-sector firm that built those highways in Northern Virginia, officials announced on Tuesday the results of an internal analysis on whether planned toll lanes on I-66 from the Beltway to Haymarket should remain under state control.
By fronting up to $600 million in public money for the estimated $2.1 billion project to build 25 miles of high-speed toll and carpool lanes on I-66 outside the Beltway, the state could reap hundreds of millions in toll revenue over the next 40 years to pay for other transportation improvements, said Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation.
“The private sector is going to build this road. The private sector is probably going to operate this road. I’m not sure if the private sector is going to finance this road,” Layne said in remarks to reporters.
If the state decides to publicly finance the widening of I-66 to 10 lanes (five in each direction: two HOT lanes and three regular purpose lanes), it would mark a significant departure from the policy of previous administrations.
In the multibillion-dollar deals that built the Express Lanes on I-495 and I-95, the state’s financial commitment was small; the international road-builder Transurban took on the risk by financing the projects through a combination of private capital and federal loans. Thus, Transurban received concessions from the state to collect almost all the toll revenue on I-495 and I-95 for the next 70 years.
Such an arrangement is known as a public-private partnership, or P3, and Layne would not rule out another P3 for I-66.
‘We didn’t get transit’
“We didn’t get transit,” Layne said. “We might have made a different decision or the public might have weighed in differently had they known the project would have been different.”
Although the two toll roads may be helping drive-alone commuters and carpoolers, Layne said the benefit is coming at the expense of something else.
Only a fraction of the thousands of vehicles in the I-495 and I-95 Express Lanes are commuter buses. Transurban has little incentive to increase their number because buses do not pay Express Lanes tolls.
The 95 Express Lanes averaged 304 bus trips per day and the 495 Express Lanes averaged 177 in the most recent quarter ending March 31, according to data released by Transurban. These figures include school buses and charter buses.
Ridership remains relatively low on the new bus routes on I-495. OmniRide’s route from Woodbridge to Tysons Corner started in Nov. 2012. Fairfax County Connector launched express bus service to Tysons from Burke in January 2013 and added routes from Lorton and Springfield added two months later.
Two and a half years after opening to the public, 11 percent of all traffic on the 495 Express Lanes was either HOV-3 or otherwise exempt from paying toll (buses or emergency vehicles) during the most recent quarter, up from 8 percent in the April 2013 quarter, according to Transurban.
The future of I-66: buses, trains?
The McAuliffe administration would like to see a larger public transit share on I-66, although it is unclear what shape it would take.
The internal analysis unveiled by Layne before the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Tuesday “demonstrated that of the several available options for procuring the project, a publicly-financed design-build project may save taxpayers between $300 million and $600 million and provide for up to $500 million to be used for future transportation improvements in Northern Virginia,” according to a VDOT statement.
Transit advocates favor public ownership of future tolls on I-66.
“Our community is not going to support any project that does not put transit upfront as a major investment that we need in the I-66 corridor. Public ownership of the tolls may allow us to do that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and critic of the prior Express Lanes concessions.
“We’ve been disappointed that they failed to look at a transit-first alternative, simply looking at transit, transit-oriented development, rural land conservation, measures to reduce the driving demand overall and to shape land use to encourage more transit use in the corridor,” he added.
State officials are expected to make a decision on the I-66 procurement process this summer.
Updated 8:30 a.m., May 20.
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