HOT lane plans grow cold after lawsuit

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An effort to ease Northern Virginia traffic congestion has hit a potential roadblock. Arlington County officials filed a federal lawsuit in August seeking to halt construction of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on interstates 395 and 95.

Before the suit was filed, the Virginia Department of Transportation delayed the project because of an unfavorable bond market and the concerns of some local officials.

HOT lane construction was scheduled to start in mid-2010 under a public-private partnership involving a consortium called Fluor-Transurban. HOT lanes on 395 and 95 would be available at no cost to buses, motorcycles and cars carrying three or more passengers. All other vehicles would pay tolls.

Arlington alleges in its lawsuit that the commonwealth and Federal Highway Administration did not conduct public health and environmental reviews required by law.

“Due to the manipulation of the process, the true impacts [of the project] cannot be identified,” says Barbara A. Favola, chairman of the Arlington Board of Supervisors. County officials say the project will hurt air quality, increase traffic on local streets and delay the response of emergency vehicles.

Environmental groups hailed the lawsuit, but business and transportation groups were outraged. Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs for Mid-Atlantic AAA, calls Arlington’s move “disappointing, damaging and hypocritical.”

Likewise, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance denounces the suit as “the latest in a long list of Northern Virginia locality actions that have delayed, downsized or defeated and run up the cost of badly needed transportation improvements.”

Stu Mendelsohn, chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, believes the suit could discourage private investment in transportation projects. “It just sends a terrible message that here you’ve got the private sector stepping up to help solve a problem and, over what is frankly petty politics, the project is being halted,” he says.

Mendelsohn says HOT lanes are critical to accommodating thousands of federal workers scheduled to move to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County as the result of recommendations by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). “The federal government is not funding any improvements, the state has no money, so the HOT lanes were really the only current solution we’ve got to help ameliorate the impact of all those additional people,” he says. “To not have the HOT lanes in progress is going to hurt the entire region.”

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