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Posted at 6:32 PM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Va. cancels plans for I-395 HOT lanes

By Rosalind S. Helderman

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton will announce Thursday that the state no longer plans to build High Occupancy Toll lanes on a six-mile stretch of I-395 inside the Capital Beltway, the planned construction of which has been the subject of a contentious lawsuit filed by Arlington County against the state.

Instead, the state will embark on a series of other projects designed to ease traffic in the I-95/I-395 corridor, including launching an environmental review process to build HOV/HOT lanes on I-95 from Garrisonville Road in Stafford County to Edsall Road in Fairfax, and link those lanes directly to new I-495 high occupancy toll lanes already under construction.

The state will also accelerate plans to build a ramp connecting the existing HOV lanes on I395 to Seminary Road, where the massive Mark Center for defense workers is being built.

The plans are outlined in a letter Connaughton sent Wednesday to county leaders in Northern Virginia. In the letter, he writes that he hopes construction will begin on the projects in 2012 and promises to work closely with local jurisdictions to lessen impact of construction and solicit citizen input.

"The new project will create a seamless, regional network of managed lanes connecting the I-95 and Capital Beltway corridors and serve Virginia's growing employment centers and military sites, including Tysons Corner, Ft. Belvoir and Quantico," Connaughton wrote. "The network will create a free-flowing path for transit and provide the region's travlers new options, including first-time opportunities for carpooling and transit in many locations."

The decision could resolve of the state's nastiest fights between Richmond and a locality. Arlington sued the state 18 months ago, arguing that the state had not adequately studied the environmental impacts of increased traffic inside the Beltway on residents who live the near the highway.

The county had angered some in Richmond with the suit in part because the suit named current and state transportation officials personally, requiring the public officials to hire their own lawyers to defend themselves.

In the letter, Connaughton acknowledged that the state and county have been unable to come to terms over the issue. He said the state's plans for the corridor no longer include HOT lanes in Alexandria and Arlington or planned upgrades to interchanges at Shirlington and Eads Street in Arlington.

The lawsuit had already delayed the start of the project, which was originally scheduled to be begin last summer.

Connaughton has scheduled a news conference on the issue on Thursday morning, after which we expect to hear significant local reaction.

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | February 2, 2011; 6:32 PM ET
Categories:  BRAC, Northern Virginia, Virginia  
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Comments

Good for Arlington for standing up for its citizens. People want to live far out and then make Arlington one big highway so they can make their commute easier. If you want an easy commute, move to Arlington or Alexandria inside the beltway. Don't move out to the boonies and then expect the state to pave over our neighborhoods because you want to get home faster!

Posted by: Whazzis | February 2, 2011 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Hurrah!!! Beat news I've heard in years! But I'm puzzled -- there's already an HOV lane access and egress ramp to Seminary Road. Are they building another one?

Posted by: AdventurerVA | February 3, 2011 12:15 AM | Report abuse

The Seminary Road ramp goes the wrong way...its an on-ramp in the AM and off-ramp in the PM. Mark Center employees need it to be an exit ramp in the AM and entrance ramp in the PM. So in other words, the new ramp would "point" south, not north like the existing ramp. Right now cars can get from Seminary Road to the SB HOV lanes via the slip ramp just past Duke Street, but there is no way to get to Seminary Road from the northbound HOV.

I've heard word on the street that this was in the works for a while....canceling the I-395 part of the HOT lanes and building the I-95 portion. Personally I think its a good idea. The I-95 corridor between Springfield and Fredericksburg is horribly congested, and any new lanes would help. Arguably, in much greater need than I-395. Granted, I don't travel it during rush hour, but my observation on weekends is that only a fraction of traffic on I-95 north at Springfield continues onto I-395....more than half exits at the Beltway. South of Springfield is where new capacity is needed...inside the Beltway, keep it the way it is if it would avoid a long protracted lawsuit with Arlington. By separating the projects out, the I-95 portion can continue, and planners can always resurrect I-395 if they can get Arlington's lawsuit settled.

Besides...you don't really need HOT lanes going into DC. HOV works great now with slugs. By not having HOT on I-395, you keep the slugging alive and well further down the line on I-95, because today's slugs that go to DC won't be able to buy their way all the way to DC. The HOT was really designed to benefit Tysons Corner, and it seems logical that all those Tysons Corner commuters from south of DC along the I-95 corridor would still be able to use HOT along I-95 and I-495 to their jobs. Slugging doesn't work for Tysons Corner, and never will...its just too darned spread out to work without some form of distribution system on the Tysons end. Thus, with HOT lanes only on I-95 and not on I-395, you provide the HOT connectivity from Fredericksburg to Tysons, but still provide a route with HOV-only for slugs to get into DC.

Posted by: thetan | February 3, 2011 12:49 AM | Report abuse

Oh, also, I agree with Arlington's stance on the poor quality of the environmental work. They chose to do the easiest form of environmental document, basically saying that there were not significant environmental impacts (remember, this means human environment in addition to natural environment....we're not talking birds or fish, we're talking neighborhoods and lifestyles). I don't see how there could possibly be no significant impacts when there is a project that will change regional commuting patterns significantly, and add an extra lane of traffic coming into Arlington County. The contractors building these lanes shouldn't have taken the easy way out, they should have done a full EIS and then Arlington wouldn't have any grounds to stand on in saying the environmental work wasn't up to snuff. Arlington is arguing that the work was done poorly because there were impacts not addressed and proper procedure was not followed. I would tend to agree that a categorical exclusion for such a huge project means the environmental impacts were not sufficiently addressed.

Posted by: thetan | February 3, 2011 12:56 AM | Report abuse

This is mixed news. It's good that VDOT is taking the steps needed to get most of this much-needed project moving quickly. The addition of HOT lanes will help to reduce congestion on I-95 south of the Beltway.

But it's regrettable that the HOT lanes won't be extended onto I-395 inside the Beltway - due to the obstructionist tactics of the Arlington County Board. Motorists who use I-395 (including Arlington drivers) must now suffer through continued congestion with no end in sight. HOT lanes would improve traffic flow on I-395, but the anti-highway mindset of Arlington politicians is preventing any relief.

The County Board's lawsuit has also used outrageous legal tactics -- making baseless charges of racism, and filing personal claims against government officials which threatens their individual finances. Arlington County and its lawyers should be sanctioned by the courts for their abuse of legal process.

Posted by: jrmil | February 3, 2011 5:51 AM | Report abuse

I had mixed feelings about the Shirley Highway HOT project. On the one hand, I credit VDOT for being willing to consider something new. A lot of people say HOT lanes won't work, but you can't know that until they try it. On the other hand, I think there's a valid point to be made that because on Shirley Highway you'd be taking existing taxpayer-funded road and handing it over to a private enterprise to charge tolls, it's objectionable. The Beltway HOT project is different--the private consortium members are widening the road and then rebuilding it to include HOT lanes, so the tolled road is in fact new capacity. Shirley Highway wouldn't have had that--while there would have been one new lane within the existing HOV footprint, they would have accomplished that by narrowing the two existing lanes and taking away the shoulder. I rather suspect that was a bad idea.

The Mark Center ramp is something that should have been constructed as soon as the government started building that monstrosity. Ideally that whole Seminary Road interchange would be reconstructed with a new design, but that's impractical and too expensive. (Sometimes I think the interchanges on Shirley Highway seem experimental, as though when it was built in the 1940s and 1950s they tried out as many different designs as they could to see what worked. I think the King Street interchange is the best of them since it's a modified cloverleaf with no weaving areas.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 7:51 AM | Report abuse

Some other thoughts:

(1) To follow up on thetan's comment about the Seminary ramp, think of it as a companion to the existing HOV ramp on the northeast side of that interchange. Essentially the idea is to build the same sort of ramp on the opposite side. It's much-needed to serve that new BRAC building and it's a good idea, as the Pentagon is easily the single biggest destination for users of the slugging system. There's no doubt Mark Center would be as well if a ramp existed.

(2) Virginia really needs to replace all the signage for the HOV facility on I-95 and I-395, and if they build any toll lanes the point becomes all the more urgent. The existing signs convey NO information that would help anyone not already familiar with the lanes, other than information about the HOV restriction and when it's in effect. There is NO information about where the lanes GO, for example, except for two signs (one near Dumfries and one near Springfield) saying "Exits from Restricted Lanes" and listing how far it is to the exits. But these signs appear only after you're already ENTERED the HOV facility. The signs need to appear BEFORE you enter so as to help convey information to drivers who COULD use those lanes but who aren't familiar with where they go. (During my third year at Duke Law, I recall one of the other law review editors asked me about those lanes; he said, "I'm afraid to go in there because I don't know where I'll wind up.") True, the biggest users of those lanes are commuters, and surely many of the HOV snobs would want to keep the bad signage if it keeps other people out. But signs that will only help people who already know the road are, by definition, not very helpful--people who know the road don't really need signs. If an HOT lane facility is built, having clear signage that lists the available destinations before you enter the lanes becomes that much more imperative, as it's really not right to set it up as a "gotcha" system where you mislead unsuspecting drivers into paying a higher toll than they expected because they didn't know there were no exits.

(The HOV signage problem isn't limited to I-95. On the Fairfax County Parkway heading eastbound near Sydenstricker Road, there are several big green signs that say "TO RESTRICTED LANES" but that fail to explain what the "restricted lanes" are or even WHERE they are--nowhere on ANY sign is there an I-95 shield!)

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Building the HOT lanes on I-95 isn't going to do a thing to reduce congestion through the area. The latest traffic research says that congestion is caused by the differences in speeds (delta) between cars. The greater the delta, the more congestion that follows.

The solution isn't to move more cars onto alternate lanes, it's to keep cars flowing at a relatively similar speed. There are 3 points along I-95 southbound, south of the beltway that cause car speeds to be at a large delta:

- Exiting the HOV to exit at Lorton Rd.
- Having almost no merge area coming from 123 onto I-95 southbound (both entrance ramps)
- Exiting HOV to exit at 234

Instead of spending millions to add lanes that aren't going to solve the problem, how about adding flyovers from the HOV lanes at Lorton Rd. and at 234? And re-construct the 123 entrance ramps to give a longer merge area? That would solve the congestion issue on I-95 southbound.

Northbound the only real choke point now is between Dale Blvd. and 123. If the entrance from Dale Blvd/Opitz was extended all the way to Prince William Pkwy, then a 4th lane added from PW Pkwy to past 123 and connect with the 4th lane that's being added now, that would solve that issue.

But hey, I'm sure Virginia has top road construction engineers that are working on this problem, so what do I know?

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 10:04 AM | Report abuse

@1995hoo I'm sure you have noticed, but Virginia has a signage problem in general. They sign roads as if the people traveling them already know where they're going. Good example: the new Mixing Bowl. If I was a visitor from another state, I wouldn't have a clue where to go. Going northbound, the overhead signs don't match the lanes and some straddle lanes, even, when they only apply to one or the other. Also, there is NO indication, until you're already on the exit at 644, which way you want to go to get to Metro. Going southbound, good luck finding the right way to go on 644. The signs for exits A & B are over the opposite lanes.

And that's just for starters.

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 10:13 AM | Report abuse

This is what I'm talking about with 644. If I wanted to go to Springfield mall, which direction would I instinctively go?

http://maps.google.com/maps?q=springfield,+va&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Springfield,+Fairfax,+Virginia&gl=us&ll=38.782324,-77.180221&spn=0.010588,0.017831&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=38.782224,-77.180237&panoid=3eYhMD02sFh8uVtAR1HABw&cbp=12,186.91,,0,5

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

"gilmoredaniel," you're absolutely right. Virginia's signage is half-arsed in many, many ways. At an intersection near my house, the street sign showing the name of the street that leads into my neighborhood is located behind a row of trees!

The signs on southbound I-395 between Edsall Road and the exit for the Beltway are probably the worst-positioned of the bunch. There are multiple signs with two arrows pointing at the same lane when they're intended to point to separate lanes.

Part of the problem as to Springfield Mall is that it isn't in Springfield at all--it's in Franconia. Still, that doesn't help non-local folks, but I believe VDOT has a general policy against listing shopping malls on the signs. (I don't see why the blue "Gas/Food/Lodging" signs couldn't include shopping malls and other things. Consider the blue "Attractions" signs Maryland now posts; those include golf courses, among other things, as long as the business pays to be included. It seems like it's sound business for the state to be willing to post such signs, as they theoretically help generate sales tax revenue.)

The proverbial bottom line is that the second sentence of your 10:13 AM comment is spot-on: Virginia signs roads for people who already know where they're going, but those are the people who have the least need for the signs. Of course we can all recognize that in construction zones, such as the HOT project or the Telegraph Road interchange, there are some inherent limitations on what can be done with signage due to the roadwork, and as long as the inadequate signage is temporary it's perfectly understandable. But so often VDOT's signage just lacks common sense. I remember a year or two ago when the new ramp from southbound Telegraph to eastbound Huntington Avenue opened, replacing a left-turn light that had been in use for over 30 years. VDOT put the signs for the new traffic pattern on the RIGHT. While it's true that generally you put signage on the right when the exit is to the right, you need to make an exception when people have been turning left for over 30 years--they're not looking to the right because they're expecting to turn left! (After thetan and I pointed this out here on Dr. Gridlock's blog, new temporary signs were erected on the left. So our comments here are not always pointless ranting!)


BTW, on the topic of Shirley Highway: I've long found it amusing how some of the signs in the express lanes have that auxiliary sign above them reading "EXPRESS LANES ONLY." I've long felt that if anyone in the local lanes is so stupid as to think that a sign OVER A SEPARATE CARRIAGEWAY applies to him, he probably isn't qualified to hold a driver's license. (I would like to see the MUTCD amended to allow for different-colored signs when there are parallel carriageways, though. It eliminates any ambiguity. Highway 401 in Toronto is a prime example of doing this, though of course since it's Canada they aren't subject to the US signage rules.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

The row of signs I mentioned between Edsall and the Beltway may be seen here:

http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=38.798338,-77.168387&spn=0.00582,0.013937&z=17&layer=c&cbll=38.798115,-77.168585&panoid=88gzyHfPaKun8-D3FQxfZw&cbp=12,236.67,,0,3.61

The sign for VA-644 has two arrows that both point to the same lane, the one to the right of the taxi. The taxi is in a lane that lets you exit to VA-644 or stay on I-95; the lane to the right of the taxi is exit-only to VA-644 and the sign ought to reflect that, similar to the way Maryland will put one arrow in a yellow "Exit Only" box and leave the other arrow on the green background when they have a configuration like this (the Outer Loop at I-270 and Rockville Pike is a good example). BTW, where is the mention of Franconia on this sign, and why isn't Burke listed as another destination for the westbound road?


An example of the "EXPRESS LANES ONLY" sign can be seen here as you go up the hill towards Landmark Mall on southbound I-395. The sign is the one to the left (above the guy in the express lanes who is improperly driving in the left lane) and the tab is visible above the words "Edsall Road":

http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=38.821847,-77.127382&spn=0.005851,0.013937&z=17&layer=c&cbll=38.821664,-77.127606&panoid=cIGONbhOn3HOpVPa7B4sSw&cbp=12,207.95,,0,5


I couldn't get a good Street View of the "Exits from Restricted Lanes" sign because the Street View car didn't use the express lanes.


While I'm on the topic, it's far less of an issue, but I've recently been amused by VDOT's indecision on how to abbreviate "Turnpike" in reference to VA-236, Little River Turnpike. Most of the street signs have traditionally said "Tpke." Big green signs on the highway said "Tnpk." There is a new sign on northbound I-395, just north of the Turkeycock HOV entrance, that says "Trpk" (this sign was apparently posted solely for purposes of switching to the newer Clearview font). Then there are some signs in Annandale that say "Trnpk" (that's almost pointless as an abbreviation...the more letters in an abbreviation, the less reason there is to abbreviate). As I say, it's not a "big deal" insofar as signage issues go, but I find it amusing.

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Whazzis is right. Arlington and Alexandria are full of clean, affordable neighborhoods. Why anyone would want to live in the wilds outside the Beltway is beyond me.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | February 3, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

@1995hoo - you go, dude! Sounds like we share the same frustrations. To me it seems like Virginia's idea of road engineering is "whatever seems like a good idea at the time" without thinking about what's coming down the road (no pun).

Actually, I had a friend who works for DMV explain to me that for local road projects, each development is responsible for its own section of road. So that's why, for instance, you'll get 2 shopping centers, each on an opposite side of the road, each with its own stoplight entrance. (Dale Blvd just west of I-95 is a good example) Or you'll have a section of road that widens to 2 lanes for a mile or so then back to a single lane. Things like that.

I really wonder how the poor engineering of our road system exacerbates our region's traffic woes.

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

@1995hoo - you go, dude! Sounds like we share the same frustrations. To me it seems like Virginia's idea of road engineering is "whatever seems like a good idea at the time" without thinking about what's coming down the road (no pun).

Actually, I had a friend who works for DMV explain to me that for local road projects, each development is responsible for its own section of road. So that's why, for instance, you'll get 2 shopping centers, each on an opposite side of the road, each with its own stoplight entrance. (Dale Blvd just west of I-95 is a good example) Or you'll have a section of road that widens to 2 lanes for a mile or so then back to a single lane. Things like that.

I really wonder how the poor engineering of our road system exacerbates our region's traffic woes.

Posted by: gilmoredaniel | February 3, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

"@1995hoo - you go, dude! Sounds like we share the same frustrations."

Every time we get in the car, my wife gets annoyed because I find something to harp on with respect to road signs, road design, or something else. :-)

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 3, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Overall the statement is positive.

Hopefully any funding will consider long term resource and environmental consequences.

The new High Occupancy Toll Lane project will not include six miles of HOV/HOT Lanes on I-395 in Alexandria and Arlington Counties. This will protect one of the most successful HOV projects in the country, protect neighborhoods from further back-ups and increased traffic, benefit local residents who carpool and use local transit. (Thank you Arlington)

The Commonwealth will work with local jurisdictions to finalize and fund Park & Ride expansions and transit improvements. This will likely require Alexandria to provide additional local funding for streets and transit.

The proposed ramp at Seminary Road will be single-lane, reversible and limited to HOV and transit access. If the ramp is similar to the northbound ramp, the impacts may be minimal. The potential increase in traffic on Seminary and through neighborhoods east of I-395 is a significant issue (school, hospital, library and the Seminary).

VDOT will host "citizen information" meetings to keep residents informed as part of the environmental review process. Given the fast schedule, the time for public comments will likely be limited.

Environmental reviews are expected to begin for the new HOV/transit ramp at Seminary in 2011 with construction beginning as early as 2012. It is possible the construction would be completed sometime in 2014 or 2015. The scale of construction will impact traffic when BRAC opens.

The announcement raises questions regarding the status of the short-mid term improvements approved by the City Council.

The Beauregard-Seminary Intersection and adjacent streets need to be improved to not only relieve traffic congestion but also to accommodate public transit. There is a risk the renewed emphasis on road construction will reduce public support and funding to significantly improve public transit.

DoD, not the State of Virginia should be funding the cost of construction of roads and needed transit to mitigate the additional costs of locating the 6400 employee office complex at Mark Center.



Dave Cavanaugh

Posted by: dacava1 | February 4, 2011 10:21 PM | Report abuse

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