Costs for HOT lanes heats up

Published 9:12 pm Thursday, November 21, 2019

It’s a hefty price tag to relieve congestion, but in the next 10 years when all the dust settles, the work is complete, and the billions of dollars have been spent, it is the hope of the region’s leaders that people who drive through the region — in particular the Bowers Hill area — will be able to move around easier.

Between high occupancy travel lanes, interchange work at Bowers Hill, an expanded High Rise Bridge and Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, it will mean people who drive through that area to or from Suffolk will see a plethora of construction zones and delays associated with all of that.

But it doesn’t even include the likely need for an expanded Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge -Tunnel, according to Linda T. Johnson, the Suffolk mayor and the chairwoman of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission.

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It held a joint meeting with the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization Thursday and learned of the $1.024 billion plan to put in those high occupancy travel, or HOT, lanes along a 45-mile stretch of I-64 from Bowers Hill near Suffolk to Jefferson Avenue in Newport News by 2025.

“The idea is to have a loop around Hampton Roads that connects all of the cities and everything together,” Johnson said.

Vehicles with two or three passengers — depending on the proposal — would be allowed to use the HOT lanes as a method of easing congestion in the regular travel lanes. The price to use them would be based how busy the HOT lanes get. The busier the HOT lanes, the higher the cost to travel in them, according to HRTAC Executive Director Kevin Page, who said there is no downside to implementing it.

“It will give a reliable travel trip throughout the entire region of the HOT network and the system that’s been proposed,” Page said.

VDOT had been studying two alternatives to improve the Bowers Hill interchange, which includes the junction of Interstates 664, 64, 264, U.S. Routes 460, 58 and 13, and Jolliff Road with its preference to rebuild a majority of the interchange to separate mainline traffic between Route 58/I-264 and I-664/I-64 through the proposed interchange is estimated to cost about $450 million. That cost includes preliminary engineering, right-of-way and utilities and construction. Rebuilding that entire interchange, VDOT estimates, would cost $633.1 million.

On average, 121,800 vehicles use I-664 between the U.S. 460 ramps and the I-264/I-64 ramps daily, according to 2018 VDOT data, with projected traffic totals under each of its plans reaching more than 160,000 vehicles per day by 2040.

Page said HRTPO agreed to parameters last month on how the HOT lanes would be designed and constructed.

“In the feasibility of that, the Bowers Hill Interchange Study is likely to have some modifications to it,” Page said, “that we can then start to integrate the HOT network through Bowers Hill and then up (Interstate) 664 heading toward the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.”

Johnson said a resolution that the HRTPO had planned to take up — but deferred action on — would have extended the HOT lane loop from Bowers Hill north on I-664 to College Drive and back to I-64 in the vicinity of the Hampton Coliseum.

That was the first step, she said.

The next is that the commission has to have a master tolling agreement, which it is working on with VDOT. That, according to Page, will determine how each will pool their resources and assure the public that the proper decisions will be made in its operation and development of the network. The agreement will also clarify where the money for the project will come from, how it will be spent and how future revenues from the HOT lanes will be allocated. The agreement is expected to be taken up at its Dec. 12 meeting.

“We’re more concerned with through-traffic, getting people through, getting people moving, than we are the revenue,” Johnson said. “We understand we need enough revenue to pay the bills, but we’re not into making money as much as we are moving people.”

Her other concern? Keeping the HOT lane tolls as low as possible, as she said the region’s drivers would be hard-pressed to pay a higher toll.

“Our economy, and our citizens, they can’t handle that,” Johnson said. “So, it needs to be doable. It is for the citizens. It absolutely is, but getting to work on time is for the citizens too.”

VDOT Commissioner Stephen Birch presented four HOT lane traffic and revenue options to the commission and the HRTPO — two of them that would allow for three passengers, HOT-3, and a pair that would allow for two, HOT-2.

Nick Donahue, state deputy secretary of transportation, said that while there is potential with HOT-3 lanes, the Hampton Roads region does not have the park-and-ride infrastructure for it to realize its potential and would be an added cost.

Barry Porter, a supervisor in Southampton County, said if that’s the case, the commission and HRTPO should not spend a lot of time on it and move forward with one of the HOT-2 options.

With a $3.6 billion-plus price tag on expanding the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, the $409.6 million to expand the High Rise Bridge, in addition to adding HOT lanes and improving the Bowers Hill bottleneck, Johnson said it is imperative to make any tolling or other HOT lane costs as low as possible for the drivers who rely on the transportation network.

While the High Rise Bridge work is expected to be finished sometime in 2021, the rest of the work, at the earliest, will take anywhere from five years for the HRBT expansion, to at least eight or nine years for the HOT lane expansion.

“We’re just going to have look at what works,” Johnson said, “what is the least onerous on the citizens, and what pays the bills.”