NoVa HOT Lane System Nearing Completion. Now What?

Pierce Homer, former Secretary of Transportation

Several years ago I found myself sitting in the office of Pierce Homer, who served as Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation between 2005 and 2010 during the Warner and Kaine administrations. He pointed to a large map in his office showing the multiple spines of the Northern Virginia transportation system — the Interstate 95/395 corridor, the Interstate 66 corridor, the Dulles Toll Road corridor, and the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway. He envisioned a day when there would be tolled HOT lanes on three of the four corridors (with the Metro Silver Line running down the Dulles Toll Road corridor).

Homer’s vision struck me as audacious at the time. No one, to my knowledge, had ever articulated such a goal. The vision was not part of the public discourse about transportation policy at the time. Neither Governor Tim Kaine nor any of his successors ever put forth the scheme to the citizens of Northern Virginia as part of coherent, unified vision of the region’s transportation future.

But within a few years, Homer’s vision will come to fruition. Construction is about to commence on an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 395 to convert high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. As the Washington Post reports, the $480 million project will “deliver the next major milestone in the state’s vision to create a network of more than 90 miles of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia by 2022.”

About 45 miles of HOT lanes are operating on I-495 and I-95 already. Another 10 miles are scheduled to open on I-66 next month. I-395 will complete the HOT lane-ification of Northern Virginia.

Homer’s vision has been implemented piece by piece throughout three successive gubernatorial administration, two Democratic and one Republican. While individual projects have seen controversy over the details, no one has raised serious objections to the larger architecture. No politician has made it a signature issue to halt the HOT lanes. Given how agitated people get over traffic in Northern Virginia, that’s a remarkable thing.

The HOT lane formula prevailed because Northern Virginia’s transportation options are so constrained. Over the years the region’s highways became so boxed in through sprawling suburban development that the acquisition of right of way to expand the width of the highway corridors became prohibitively expensive. Except in the Dulles corridor, commuter rail wasn’t a serious alternative. Despite carpoolers’ ability to access lightly traveled HOV lanes, shared ridership has been declining. (The jury is out whether Uber can revitalized ride sharing.) But HOT lanes raised toll revenue that could be used to add new lanes in between existing lanes, make interchange improvements, and even subsidize the cost of commuter bus routes. Also, HOT lanes gave time-sensitive motorists the option of buying their way out of traffic gridlock, which took a few cars off the other lanes and rendered them marginally less congested.

Adding HOT lanes was a necessary evolution to the road system that has made driving in Northern Virginia temporarily more tolerable than it would have been without them. As one who makes periodic forays into Northern Virginia, I have used the HOT lanes on occasion. But congestion is a still deterrent to Richmonders venturing to Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Indeed, I would say based upon my personal experience that driving on I-95 is more gridlock-prone and unpredictable than ever. 

I regard HOT lanes as a palliative that purchased the region a few years’ reprieve from traffic hell but does not address the region’s imbalance in the location of jobs and housing that forces people to commute long distances. As former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor E M Risse used to remind us repeatedly, there is no transportation solution for poor land use policy. Northern Virginia cannot build enough highways, commuter rail, HOV lanes or HOT lanes to fix what ails it. The only long-term solution is to build communities with a better balance of jobs, housing, shopping, public services, and other amenities at the neighborhood and sub-regional scale, and to design communities with sufficient density that people can reach many of their destinations by foot.

If only we had a Pierce Homer of land use policy with a vision of Northern Virginia’s land use future….

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12 responses to “NoVa HOT Lane System Nearing Completion. Now What?

  1. I don’t know about land use – but in terms of tolling the urban MSA corridors – it’s become the standard.. not the exception.

    Virginia is not unique… New York, Boston, Charlotte, Atlanta, Florida, Houston, LA, Seattle, Chicago….

    And it’s not just “tolling” , it’s congestion tolling – that targets the SOV drivers.

    The goal of the tolling is not “profit” as much as it is – convincing people to either carpool or be prepare to pay extra fora less congested trip.

    Some of the “profit” actually goes for transit and for carpool facilities.

    And yes.. it IS remarkable that something that is so hated by so many has been implemented anyhow… not just in NoVa but nationally…

    but in case anyone IS wondering whether NoVa is unique:

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  2. Everywhere I go I see the same thing – fast growing cities struggle with land use planning and transportation. It’s certainly true in Charlotte – which has been growing like a weed. A trip from our offices in Charlotte to a restaurant 10 miles away can take 45 minutes to an hour.

    It seems that there has never been a major metropolitan area in the United States that practiced good land use policy. I find that hard to fathom. However, as MSAs grow the density increases and the land use problems solve themselves. The idea of commuting into and out of Manhattan is pretty inconceivable for the cast majority of New Yorkers. The parking alone is astronomically expensive. So, people take trains and subways and ferries.

    I personally think NoVa’s land use future will be just fine. Let me rephrase that, I think Metropolitan Washington’s land use future will be just fine. The area is growing, the cost of personal transportation is getting very high, the Metro is expanding. Arlington, Alexandria and DC have fully urban population densities. The demand for housing is causing the gentrification of previously sketchy neighborhoods.

    I’d spend more time worrying about the land use disaster that is Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties. That area is hitting the equivalent of the awkward teenage years – the land density has gotten high enough that building new roads is a problem while it’s not high enough for serious mass transit to be a consideration.

  3. Well not quite so fast Jim, the HOT Lanes on I-66 are just getting started, inside the Beltway. I believe 2022 is when the next phase (HOT-3 out past Manassas) will be completed.

    Jury is still out, I think. These are “Lexus” lanes with very expensive tolls during rush hour. I forget whether it was Gov McAuliffe or Sec Layne last week saying that “not one penny of taxpayer money was used (for the HOT lanes).” Which of course had me wondering, where then is my transportation tax money going?

    The HOT lanes are not free for hybrids or plug-ins, so when finally completed in 2022, there will be less incentive for NoVA residents to purchase clean-fuels cars (only “grandfathered ” residents qualify today, but that dwindling free-HOV incentive presumably bumps hybrid sales here in NoVA at least a little bit). I don’t care too much about that, just saying one implication.

    I suppose HOT lanes help some (well-off) people and it does seem like Virginia gets more brownie points than Maryland for addressing the Beltway/I-95 traffic issues.

    As an aside, I was just noticing the Beltway HOT lanes already have a lot of tar covering the cracks in the asphalt. One would think the road should look spotless as trucks are not allowed on there.

  4. From the point of view of east coast travelers and trucks doing the long haul — Florida or Atlanta to New England — Virginia’s stretch of I-95 from Woodbridge to Fredericksburg is nearly as dysfunctional as the missing link from New Brunswick to Princeton. NJ has its Turnpike plus US 206 and US 1; and Virginia has a piece of I-95 that works OK at 3 am (and occasionally at other times) plus US 301 and US 1, but those are not integrated highways designed to serve an interstate function.

    I suppose we have lost the national will to push through to completion (even at 90% federal funding, even with tolls high enough to deter urban sprawl) such visionary solutions as “through” highways like the NJ Turnpike mainly serving out-of-Staters. Thanks to NC we can now, finally, get all the way from Richmond to Charlotte by several different fully functional routes; but what has Virginia provided from Richmond north to Washington or Dulles Airport? Why does Google Maps usually show that stretch of I-95 in various shades of aneurysm?

    I agree with DJR, NoVa’s land use future will be just fine — in terms of balancing what’s happening internal to the Metropolitan Washington area, that is. Metro is too big to fail; I suppose they’ll even eventually find a way to enlarge the Rosslyn to Downtown tunnel capacity. It’s getting into and out of and through the Metro area to RoVa, by personal auto or commercial vehicle, that is now looking grim. It’s sustaining the local economy by facilitating truck traffic where it has to go, including to Dulles and BWI, that is now looking especially problematic. It’s getting people from Richmond to the District, from Gainesville to the District, or the reverse, that is now already notorious. Yes, the Richmond region is hitting the equivalent of the awkward teenage years; but on that scale, Fredericksburg has developed a 30-something’s grotesque beer-belly and NoVa has progressed to opiod addiction, incapacitated and full of excuses not solutions.

    HOT lanes in NoVa are a quick fix, a bandaid, not a cure. Thank God for them; but just drive through Woodbridge southbound on a weekday from 5-7 pm, or just about any Saturday midday, and see how bad things are even with the Express Lanes open. The main lanes are at a standstill, from the merge south of Va 123 all the way back to Newington. The express lanes are already saturated and slow despite the price until past the Dale City and Prince William exits. There is not a glimmer of hope for further expansion of this portion of the corridor, even for more HOT. The same main-line conditions repeat from before Aquia/Garrisonville past the merge and on-and-off to Va 3 at Fredericksburg. Everyone who lives up there knows this. Everyone who can avoid these times on this road does so, but that is not always possible. VRE is already essential and should be expanded both to Fredericksburg and Manassas, but that expansion isn’t being funded either, and commuter-rail doesn’t help with the through traffic or the commercial deliveries.

    • ” … but just drive through Woodbridge southbound on a weekday from 5-7 pm, or just about any Saturday midday, and see how bad things are even with the Express Lanes open.”

      You’re a long way from the urban core in Woodbridge. How do other cities which have gone through the “densification” of their MSA handle commutes of that length? Railroads connecting to subways. Take the Long Island Railroad to Manhattan and get on a subway that will get you close enough to walk to your job. In Chicago they run double decker trains to 2 North Riverside and people pile out onto the L. Do people in Chicago spend 1:00 to 1:30 each way commuting? Sure. They do some part of their job on the train (e-mail?), get in at 9:00 am, eat lunch at their desk and leave by 5:00. Even with their 1:30 commute each way they are leaving home at 7:15 and getting home at 6:45. In return they are living in a leafy suburb and working a lucrative job in “the City”.

      Rising density forces the kinds of land use planning and mass transit options that Jim Bacon, et al keep proposing. Absent Scandinavian style taxation I don’t see any way to afford the mass transit options without the density required to keep the trains, ferries, etc full.

      As far as “core” Northern Virginia transportation … I think it’s a lot better. There are still choke points (like I-66) but the Mixing Bowl has been fixed, the Wilson Bridge has been fixed, the Greenway has opened up transit for Loudoun, the Dulles Toll Rd is expensive but available, Arlingtonians and Alexandrians get to and from DC via Metro, etc.

      As far as hacking your way from DC to Woodbridge or Fredricksburg? That’s like living in Suffolk County and trying to make the daily commute to Manhattan. At some point you have to take responsibility for your own lifestyle decisions.

    • The Titanic is now underwater, its last breath now history, yet its passengers are still arranging deck chairs while gurgling their last hopes for the future.

  5. HOT lanes are not about collecting tolls or penalizing hybrid drivers or profits for toll operators.

    They are congestion management tools, the sole purpose is to limit the amount of cars such that gridlock is held at bay.

    Their entire purpose is to incentivize people to NOT drive solo to/from work every day – which is , in most every urban area in the US – regardless of it’s land use policies – THE problem.

    From a sustainability perspective, the bigger an urban area grows – the more jobs, the more solo commuting, the more congestion and the more damage to out-of-region travelers trying to navigate through the region.

    There is no unbuilt land left to condemn for road. Any new lanes will require condemnation of already-built tax-generating development – much of it Commercial – and even if you did that – those lanes would be gridlocked by more people choosing to drive solo again. The more you build – the more folks will drive solo – until and unless something stops them.

    Virtually no state has the gas tax finances to add additional capacity lanes to urban areas where if you actually would tear down development – would lead to costs that are 10-20-50 times as much as a mile of rural interstate – 100 million per mile and up. Ten miles of urban interstate is a billion dollars. Virginia annual Transportation funding for everything is about 4 billion. The numbers do not work unless you want a gas tax of 50 cents or more.

    This is why – in city after city after city -not only in the US – DJ – but other major cities of the world – they are now not only tolling but using dynamic tolling to discourage more cars once the roads are at capacity. The more congestion, the higher the tolls – and anyone willing to NOT drive SOLO , can use the roads to travel for free – i.e. mass transit.

    More than any other issue – the intent and purpose of HOT lanes is not understood by most people who think the govt should not toll but add new lanes and serve the increasing demand for solo commuting – and more than any other issue – the DOTs – across the country – believe there is no other truly viable solution to urban congestion than HOT lanes and that’s what they’re now building – whether it’s Washington MSA or Atlanta MSA or Houston, LA, Seattle, Chicago, etc.

    There’s a huge hypocritical irony about urban areas these days:

    We have folks who talk about the “right kind” of land-use in urban areas to create “walkable” and “bikeable” spaces – and they are lauded over and over in articles – but they’re not city-wide.. they are isolated enclaves – surrounded by a sea of auto-centric congestion.

    And the horrible truth is that all those folks talking about non-auto urban spaces – basically – themselves have no “land-use” .. “answer” for the auto-centric malady that infects virtually every urban area in the US.

    At the end of the day -all those city-planners have failed and have yielded to the State DOTs to actually keep the cities mobile… and the preferred solution is HOT lanes – to manage the congestion – to keep gridlock at bay – so that people can get to their “walkable” enclaves!

    There is no top 10 list of the least auto-centric cities in the US because there are none.

    • Well Gov McAuliffe never says the HOT lanes were built to encourage car pools. He usually says the main purpose was to give motorists, on the way work mainly, a guaranteed fast path around the gridlock traffic assuming they are wiling to pay the high tolls or car pool.

      Nonetheless we have a historically successful HOV-3 car pool system in NoVA (“slugging”) on I-95/I-395 that seems to remain in tact. It doesn’t look like the new HOT-3 on the I-495 Beltway has increased car pools on the Beltway (not sure anyone was expecting that). I-66 is currently HOV-2 with some car pools, so the big question is will the eventual switch to HOT-3 lead to a new slugging program on I-66 to the west?

  6. I met Pierce Homer a couple of times and communicated with him many more times. I thought he did a pretty good job as Secretary of Transportation.

    I think HOT/Express Lanes offer value when they are constructed to add capacity. I’m less positive about their use Inside the Beltway on I-66, although McAuliffe did compromise by adding a third east-bound lane from the Beltway to Ballston.

    Express Lanes give people choices to pay and go fast or not pay and accept the traffic on the general purpose lanes. I suspect many people use them when they face a deadline – pick up the kid at school or daycare – deliver a package on time – make a flight or meeting. They also cause people to consider transit or car/van pooling. An often overlooked benefit is the ability to operate reliable express bus service on the Express Lanes. Tysons has benefited from some of these routes.

    As far as land use is concerned, I’m pessimistic Fairfax County can recover from decades of allowing growth and density knowing full well VDOT could not provide the additional transportation infrastructure needed to handle the growth. And often trading fair and necessary proffers for campaign contributions.

    The Metro-wide approach of trying to concentrate future development at Activity Centers can help, but only in the event: 1) the Activity Centers are actually near transit (many are not); 2) enough people want to live in multi-family buildings; 3) there is enough job stability to permit people to live close to work and/or transit; and 4) people can afford to pay the high prices that living in dense Activity Centers require.

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  8. Gov McAuliffe was on WTOP Ask the Gov program today.

    The Gov clarified that I-66 inside the Beltway is HOV-2 until about 2022 when it changes to HOT-3, he said due to federal law.

    There were some vocal complaints ( on the air and on the WTOP web page comments) about the new Tolls inside I-66, which Gov McAuliffe seemed to suggest was not true. But Gov McAuliffe failed to realize/acknowledge that some people are indeed facing new tolls: namely hybrid drivers who are currently exempt from tolls. So my guess is that’s who is complaining.

    I am not a big fan of giving hybrids free-HOV, but for those grandfathered hybrid/plug-in drivers who are still currently taking advantage of free HOV inside the Beltway and I-66 and I-395, that cohort is now taking a serious setback. That would include hybrid commuters in my neighborhood, who still had free access to I-395 HOV lanes thanks to Arlington’s initial refusal to allow the HOT lanes to go all the way up I-395 until now.

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