The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Hot lanes work ready to begin
BY SCOTT SHENK
DALE CITY—The first shovels of dirt for the Interstate 95 express lanes project were turned Tuesday.
It was only a couple of shovelfuls, though, and the shovels were handled by men in suits.
But Gov. Bob McDonnell stressed during the groundbreaking event that work was expected to start by this morning.
The governor and other officials touted the nearly $1 billion project as a way to ease congestion and spark the economy. The watchdog group Coalition for Smarter Growth, on the other hand, said the project doesn’t fix long-range issues and lacks transparency.
Cord Sterling, a member of the Stafford Board of Supervisor and of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, said at Tuesday’s groundbreaking at the Dale City rest area that it took him two hours and 15 minutes to drive 40 miles on I–95 last week. He noted that over his shoulder from the rest area was the spot where the current HOV lanes end, creating the region’s worst bottleneck.
“That’s what this project is about,” he said, adding that the express lanes will get rid of that choke point and help improve many area commuters’ lives by easing congestion.
The express lanes, expected to be up and running by the end of 2014, will add to and be integrated into the HOV-lane system used for years only by vehicles carrying at least three people. The I–95 express lanes will tie in to the $1.4 billion Interstate 495 express lanes, a project expected to be complete by December or January.
The express lanes will carry variable electronic tolls adjusted according to the traffic flow. Cars with at least three people, motorcycles, buses and vanpools will be able to use the lanes for free.
All cars that use the lanes will need an E–ZPass, which carries a $35 deposit toward payment for tolls. A flex pass, which has the free-ride option, will carry a $1 monthly fee. The traditional E–ZPass carries a 50 cent fee.
McDonnell said the project will have a “major benefit” for localities along the I–95 corridor, noting that it would create 12,600 jobs (including 900 in Stafford) and bring $1.54 billion in economic activity during the two years of construction.
Stewart Schwartz, with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the project is flawed.
He said there is a “cozy relationship” between the state and the private companies, Fluor and Transurban, that will build and operate the express lanes.
The companies will pay for most of the project—$854 million; the state will pay about $71 million—and will operate the lanes. They also will earn profits generated by the express-lane tolls.
The governor and other officials on Tuesday praised the public–private partnership as a way to build megaprojects without dipping into the state’s transportation funds or impacting its bond rating.
Schwartz said the project has lacked transparency concerning the deal and has ignored alternatives. And any long-range plan, he added, should also focus on more mass transit such as buses and the Virginia Railway Express commuter train system.
The express-lanes project will add thousands of spaces for park-and-ride options, such as buses, including at local commuter lots in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.
But Schwartz said the approach doesn’t go far enough, noting that it doesn’t include plans to actually add more buses to the roads. He said that some $400 million aimed at transit in the original HOV plan was “stripped away.”
“We don’t think we’re getting the best deal possible or the best overall solution for the corridor,” Schwartz said.
McDonnell also faced media questions Tuesday about the tolls pricing out “poor” drivers.
He anyone can avoid the tolls by choosing to use a carpool, ride-share, or hop on a bus, or just stay in the primary lanes, all of which are free.
He said that all roads are paid for by the taxpayers. Tolls are just another way to raise funds to help pay for them, he added, noting that the express lanes will run through the eighth-most-prosperous region in the country.
“People, I think, really understand that at the end of the day there aren’t any free lunches,” he said. “You either pay taxes, or you pay debt service on bonds, or you pay a toll to use the road.”
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436