The 495 Express Lanes recently celebrated their first anniversary and, based on early returns, are s-l-o-w-l-y trending in the right direction.
Although usage and toll revenue have steadily increased on the express lanes — a public-private partnership between Transurban, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, and infrastructure developer Fluor — the numbers still have a ways to go before meeting revenue forecasts.
Before a shovel ever hit the ground on this project, the first full year revenue was forecast at $46.1 million. The four quarters of 2013 saw actual revenues of $2.5 million, $4 million, $4.8 million and $5.9 million, a total of about $17.2 million.
That’s well short of their original goal, but encouraging signs do exist. Daily vehicle trips on the 14-mile stretch of lanes nearly doubled from December 2012 to December 2013 and revenue grew from a daily average of $45,270 for the quarter ending June 30 to $51,736 for the quarter ending in September. Part of the uptick can be chalked up to familiarity. Another part can be credited to some mid-game adjustments, including adjusting the road’s speed limit from 55 to 65 miles per hour last June.
When Transurban first came on the scene several years ago, public-private partnerships of this scope were met with a great deal of angst and skepticism by both residents and government officials. Nearly a decade later, many of those fears have subsided.
And while these lanes aren’t guaranteed to bolster Fairfax County’s economic development efforts or singlehandedly solve our region’s transportations problems, it’s probably safe to call them a net asset to Northern Virginia.
Perhaps the clearest lesson from this public-private partnership is that it’s among the easiest and cheapest ways to add capacity to a clogged, complicated road network.
It’s a fairly simple premise. You build a road and the people who use it pay for it. It’s the right way to go in urban areas with significant rush hour congestion.
Given the state of transportation funding in Virginia, it makes no sense — and is not fiscally possible — to keep building more capacity in hopes of resolving every bottleneck from Reston to Richmond.
We’re long past the limits of what can be achieved through money and eminent domain.
Going forward, moving people from “A” to “B” will entail providing them with more options. Yes, that might mean more HOT lane-type projects with dynamic tolling structures. It also means adding reliable, easy-to-use bus service on those lanes and other key arteries around our region. The expansion of Metrorail will be part of the solution, as will greater emphasis on telework.
Whether you’ve used the 495 Express Lanes or not, they’ve likely shaved a few minutes off your weekday commute.
For that reason alone, we should all be rooting for their user numbers to keep rising in 2014 and beyond.