Arlington, VA

Virginia needs to do more to catch people evading tolls, county officials said at an Arlington Transportation Commission meeting last Thursday.

Virginia Department of Transportation officials attended the meeting, with plans to boast about boosted speeds on I-66, but local officials were more concerned about what some saw as underenforcement of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) rules.

David Caudill, the division administrator for tolling for VDOT, explained that the current enforcement relies on Virginia State Police counting heads in passing cars in conjunction with checking a beacon that lights up on a gantry if the passing car registered as HOV.

But Commission member Audrey Clement said that fewer people are receiving citations for I-66 toll violations than would be even if there were a 99 percent toll-compliance rate.

“There were 702 HOV citations for a year, that averages to 2.7 citations for every eight hours of tolling. That’s three per day,” said Clement. “So we’re concerned that this phenomenon is being undercounted and underenforced, and that may be driving up tolls.”

According to VDOT staff, there are at least four state troopers assigned to enforcement on I-66 every day. Rather than just being able to focus on HOV rules, however, troopers also respond to emergency calls and traffic violations like speeding.

Caudill recognized that there is a lapse in toll enforcement and said that during enforcement “blitzes” the HOV usage rates drop by 3 percent, giving VDOT a rough estimate for how many drivers are ducking out of the toll.

“It’s a challenge, I’ll admit that,” Caudill said. “[It is] challenging to look at the light, count number of heads, and then chase them down… We’re not catching everyone, not by any means.”

VDOT staff said the group is partnering with Transurban to put together a pilot program for an electronic sensor system.

“We think there’s an opportunity there for better enforcement,” Caudill said, “[and] it does impact the tolls, probably.”

Clement was not alone in expressing her disappointment at the lack of enforcement. Chris Slatt, chair of the Transportation Commission, said the lapse in enforcement goes against what VDOT told Arlington when the toll lanes were first proposed

“When VDOT was here before tolling went into place, one of the main reasons presented [to us] was HOV violations were rampant then,” Slatt said. “We were told that this was going to be the solution to HOV violation problem, that we were going to do enforcement. And yet here we are, having this conversation again.”

Caudill said the new HOV lanes have also led to complications — for instance, electronic passes mean officers can’t get an estimate on toll-violators by just counting heads.

“I’m glad to hear pilot programs at least are in the works to try to get a handle on this, because HOV violators are slowing down legitimate HOV drivers,” said Slatt. “[They’re] driving up costs of people legally paying tolls, and taking money that could be used for multimodal transportation projects to keep us all moving.”

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Crews have been cutting down trees along I-395 to make room for sound-mitigating walls expected to help buffer noise from expanding the highway’s HOV lanes.

Drivers may notice construction crews clear cutting trees and brush along I-395 where large new concrete wall panels are being set up.

The walls are being built because officials expect more traffic to result from their two-year project extending I-395’s Express Lanes through Alexandria and Arlington to the D.C. border.

The eight-mile, $475 million project converts two HOV lanes to HOT lanes, and adds a third HOT lane, between Turkeycock Run at Edsall Road to Eads Street near the Pentagon and is scheduled to finish later this year. The construction is taking place within the highway’s existing right-of-way.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) contracted Australia-based toll company Transurban to build and operate the project. VDOT directed ARLnow’s requests for comment about tree removal to Transurban.

Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk acknowledged residents may be upset about losing the trees, but the company”takes as much care as possible where it comes to tree removal” and is “committed to adding landscaping” along the walls.

McGurk also noted that the company is giving grants to communities for new tree planting or “other beautification projects” and that neighborhood can apply for a grant by March 31. He also said the wall construction is “on time and on budget” with southbound walls scheduled to be completed this summer, and northbound walls expected next spring.

The construction of the walls was preceded by a community outreach. In 2017, wall contractor AECOM polled residents who lived near I-395 in the Fairlington neighborhood if they wanted sound walls built to mitigate noise from the highway. The vote came at the same time the Fairlington Civic Association (FCA) wrote that its residents were concerned that the proposed 25-foot walls required 10 feet of clearance on both sides, likely necessitating tree removal.

The HOT lane expansion has been touted as a way to increase revenue for other local infrastructure upgrades, with Transburan pledging to pay $15 million each year to local jurisdictions for projects like renovating bridges and re-doing the Pentagon’s south parking lot.

Read Transurban’s complete comment below:

The project team takes as much care as possible where it comes to tree removal. We know how much the community cherishes the tree canopy and how important the trees are to our environment. VDOT and the 395 project team has committed to adding landscaping in identified areas along sound walls. And, Transurban, the operator of the 395 Express Lanes, has provided many of the neighborhoods along the corridor a grant to plant trees or to pay for other beautification projects. We invite any neighborhood in the 395 corridor to apply for one of our quarterly grants… The next deadline is March 31st.

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Arlington is gearing up to ask for millions in I-66 toll revenue to fund a series of changes along Lee Highway, including the creation of a dedicated bus and HOV lane along the road during rush hours.

The County Board is set to sign off this weekend on funding requests for six transportation projects, totaling $6.9 million, four of which focus on reducing traffic along Lee Highway as it runs from Rosslyn to East Falls Church.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission doles out a portion of the revenues collected through the year-old I-66 toll program to localities, in order to help afford road improvements along the corridor inside the Beltway. Accordingly, Arlington is looking for cash for the following efforts along Lee Highway, per a county staff report:

Metrobus Route 3Y Service Improvements — $520,000 per year for five years, total request $2.6 million

This project will increase morning peak hour frequency and provide running time improvements for better on-time performance on the subject Metrobus route that connects the East Falls Church Metrorail Station with the Farragut Square and McPherson Square areas in the District of Columbia via Lee Highway and a short section of I-66 from Rosslyn to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

Intersection Improvements at Lee Highway and Washington Boulevard — $400,000

This project will add a second left turn lane from northbound Lee Highway to westbound Washington Boulevard and provide pedestrian improvements at the intersection north of the bridge over I-66, which is 0.25 miles from the East Falls Church Metrorail Station.

Enhanced Vehicle Presence Detection on Lee Highway — $20,000 per intersection for 15 intersections, total request $300,000

This project will install forward looking infrared (FLIR) video cameras at key intersections along Lee Highway. FLIR technology uses thermographic cameras that improve the accuracy of vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle detection in all lighting and weather conditions, and in turn improve optimal signal, intersection, and corridor operations and performance.

Design and Construct Peak Period, Peak Direction HOV and Bus-Only Lane on Lee Highway from just east of N. Kenmore Street to N. Lynn Street — $1.5 million

This project would convert the outside lane of Lee Highway to an HOV and bus only lane through pavement treatment, restriping, and signage. The lane would operate eastbound during the morning peak period and westbound during the evening peak period only; at other times it will continue as a general purpose travel lane.

The final project on the list is one that the county initially considered back in 2016 as an effort to prepare for Metro’s “SafeTrack” schedule disruptions, and the new lane would’ve run from Court House to Rosslyn. However, county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet says that lane was never constructed, and the new proposal calls for it to run from Cherrydale to Rosslyn instead.

The county expects a new lane would be particularly impactful along that section of the highway because about “25 loaded buses per hour” drive along it during peak period, and they often run into heavy delays near the highway’s intersection with N. Lynn Street in Rosslyn, according to the report.

In addition to the Lee Highway changes, officials are also hoping to earn $750,000 to add a new traffic light to the Washington Blvd entrance to the East Falls Church Metro station, as well as crosswalks and other pedestrian improvements at the intersection.

Finally, the county plans to ask for a total of $1.3 million over the next three years for “enhanced transportation demand management outreach” along the corridor, educating commuters about public transit and other strategies for getting cars off the road.

The Board is set to approve these funding requests at its meeting on Saturday (Dec. 15), and the NVTC will accept applications through Jan. 16. The organization plans to hand out $20 million in funding across the region through the program next year.

Photo via Google Maps

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Starting tomorrow, Virginia State Police are set to start enforcement activities intended to punish High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) violators on I-66.

VSP will start a focused HOV enforcement on I-66 express lanes inside the Beltway tomorrow (Thursday) during the morning and afternoon rush hour periods, the Virginia Department of Transportation recently announced.

Violators caught in this area face fines ranging from $125 for a first offense, up to $1,000 for a fourth or subsequent offense within a period of five years from the first one.

Drivers must have an E-ZPass device or E-ZPass Flex for vehicles with two or more people to travel during rush hours.

All vehicles with two or more people may use the road during rush hours for free, but need an E-ZPass Flex switched to HOV-mode. Drivers who choose to pay a toll and drive by themselves in the express lanes also need an E-ZPass.

VSP’s last focused HOV enforcement initiative in the same area caught 32 violators, and police wrote 19 other citations on Nov. 30.

HOV hours are from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. westbound, Monday through Friday.

File photo

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A reported four-vehicle crash has completely blocked the HOV lanes of I-395 near Shirlington.

Police and firefighters are on scene, evaluating four people for possible injuries, according to scanner traffic.

Traffic cameras show northbound HOV traffic at a standstill past King Street.

Update at 12:20 p.m. — All lanes have reopened.

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A vehicle overturned in the southbound HOV lanes of I-395 during Tuesday’s evening rush hour.

The crash was reported shortly before 6:45 p.m. near Shirlington. It left one vehicle on its side, completely blocking the HOV lanes.

The driver of the vehicle was reportedly able to get out and was not seriously injured. Traffic is being diverted onto Shirlington Circle.

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The Arlington County Board will consider a resolution at its meeting this week that could help pave the way for HOV or bus-only lanes on Columbia Pike.

The county took over management of the Pike from VDOT in 2010. The Board is considering an amendment to its agreement with VDOT that would provide for “active lane management practices and associated restrictions.”

Whereas the 2010 agreement specified that the county must maintain two through lanes in each direction, the amendment would allow “use by certain specified modes only, e.g., buses, high occupancy cars, and similar high capacity modes, in order to optimize person throughput during specified times of the day.”

Such restrictions may be in place during rush hour or any other peak demand period determined by the county. At least one lane in each direction “will be available for through traffic for all modes at all times.”

The language of the amendment was approved by VDOT’s oversight body, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, on Dec. 5, according to a staff county report. The County Board is now considering a resolution formally requesting the amendment from VDOT.

The overall goal, according to the staff report, is moving more people — but not necessarily more cars — along the constrained Columbia Pike corridor.

County staff has been reviewing options related to the County’s secondary road system for how the County can support the mutual goals of the Department and the County to use the existing public right-of-way to support transportation improvements and enhancements that move more people more efficiently. While the County has demonstrated its effectiveness in increasing mobility along Columbia Pike, the constrained right-of-way limits the extent to which the County can increase the movement of people. Because Columbia Pike has restrictions on how the County can use the public right-of-way, County staff, at the direction of the County Board, has been working with the Department to develop language that would provide the County with greater flexibility now and in the future to manage Columbia Pike in a way that supports the movement of people within and through the corridor.

The change could allow for a version of Bus Rapid Transit, which was often touted as an alternative to the since-cancelled Columbia Pike streetcar. The county said in 2016 that it was “looking at…the possibility of creating locations with dedicated bus lanes, along with other innovations” along the Pike.

The county has not solicited public feedback on the amendment itself, according to the staff report.

“Public outreach is not appropriate for an administrative amendment to the Agreement,” the report states.

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Morning Notes

Children playing soccer near Arlington Hall (Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick)

Murder Victim Feared Her Estranged Husband — Bonnie Black, who was found dead in her home in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood on April 17, feared her estranged husband, court documents show. After months of continuing to live in the neighborhood a free man during the investigation, David Black is now in jail, charged with murder. [NBC Washington]

Wakefield, W-L Fall in Football Playoffs — The playoff runs for the Wakefield and Washington-Lee high school football teams have ended early. Wakefield could’t hang on to a 6-0 lead at halftime, falling to Potomac Falls 21-6, while W-L lost 44-20 to Westfield. [InsideNova, Washington Post]

Arlington Wants I-66 Widening Delayed — This week the Arlington County Board is scheduled to decide its position on the plan for tolling on I-66. At its Saturday meeting the Board made clear that it wants to delay the widening of the highway as long as possible. Meanwhile, responding to questions from county officials, VDOT says it’s not able to fully enforce existing HOV restrictions on I-66 because the enforcement causes significant traffic delays. Nearly half of the clogged rush hour traffic on I-66 is believed to be HOV rule breakers. [WTOP, WTOP]

County May Ask for Paper, Plastic Bag Tax Authority — Despite failing efforts in previous years, Arlington County’s draft legislative agenda seeks to again ask the Virginia General Assembly for the authority to levy a small tax on single-use paper and plastic bags. The proposal may exempt bags for certain items, like newspapers, dry cleaning and prescription drugs. [InsideNova]

Historic House for Sale — A 145-year-old house known as “The Hill” is now for sale in Arlington’s Old Glebe neighborhood. Originally a summer home for a prominent D.C. family, the four-bedroom house is on the market for $1,568,000. [Preservation Arlington]

Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick

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(Updated at 2:50 p.m.) At a public forum last night, Arlington residents spoke out against the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to turn I-66 into a toll road during rush hour.

VDOT officials met residents at Washington-Lee High School (1301 N. Stafford Street) to discuss the I-66 Inside the Beltway project, which would convert the highway into a toll road during rush hour by 2017 and increase the HOV requirement to three people by 2020.

While some Arlington residents have spoken out in the past about the HOV changes, the audience’s attention was on the dynamically priced tolls proposed by the transportation authority. Members of the audience — who mostly identified themselves as Arlington residents — had a chance to comment on or ask about the plan.

Not one person supported the tolls, even though the biggest impact is likely to be felt by commuters from the outer suburbs.

“The public isn’t benefiting from the HOT lanes, only the wealthy and the privileged,” said one person.

Under VDOT’s plan for I-66, during rush hour both directions of I-66 would be tolled, with the cost depending on the level of demand for the road. During the presentation last night, Amanda Baxter, a VDOT official, said tolls could be as high as $9 for the eastbound morning commute.

I-66 would be tolled for four hours during each rush hour period, possibly from 5:30-9:30 a.m. and 3-7 p.m., Baxter said.

The idea behind the I-66 project is to reduce the amount of congestion on the road, allowing people to move more quickly during rush hour, said VDOT official Rene’e Hamilton.

“Time is money, and basically we are giving people a reliable trip that they can calculate how much time it would actually take them to go through the corridor and to their destination,” she said.

The project aims to improve mass transit, as well, since buses get caught up in the rush hour traffic too, causing daily bus riders to be late to work at least once a week, said Kelley Coyner with Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.

“The same things that hold you up in a car, hold you up in a bus,” Coyner said.

Using the tolls and converting to HOV 3 likely means fewer cars will use I-66 during rush hour. The goal is to have cars and buses consistently traveling at 45 miles per hour during rush hour, Hamilton said.

Currently, speeds can be as low as five miles per hour during evening commutes and 25 miles per hour in the morning. Other times, speeds are as high as 55 or 60 miles per hour, leaving people with an unreliable way of measuring how long their daily commute will be, she said.

“Tolling the facility will help to manage the congestion along the facility and create a reliable trip,” Hamilton said. “That 45 miles per hour that HOV facilities are required to meet.”

The audience mainly took issue with the price of the dynamic tolling, saying it would hurt people who can’t afford to pay $9 every morning.

“These tolls are for a reliable trip for the wealthy,” a resident said.

Another compared paying to use a road to paying to send a child to a public school.

“I’m opposed to tolls,” she said. “I feel roads, like our schools, should be paid for by our taxes.”

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Traffic on I-66

(Updated on 7/31/15) The Virginia Department of Transportation is going back to Arlington residents to hear their concerns about its planned Transform 66 project.

Del. Patrick Hope organized a public meeting featuring representatives from VDOT on Saturday at Arlington Central Library auditorium (1015 N. Quincy Street) from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to discuss the proposed changes to the highway inside the Beltway.

The planned features include turning the HOV lanes on I-66 between Rosslyn and I-495 into to High Occupancy Travel (HOT) lanes during weekday peak periods. These lanes would be open for anyone with three or more passengers or those who are willing to pay a toll. The new lanes would also not accept Clean Fuel license plates issued before 2006 as a way to avoid the toll.

The idea is to “deliver free-flowing and more reliable travel,” according to VDOT, but some Arlington residents have spoken out against the changes. Arlington residents packed into the library’s auditorium in June to hear from VDOT staff about changes. A lengthy Q&A period followed with many residents expressing their displeasure toward the proposed changes. County Board member John Vihstadt was also in attendance.

Attendees raised concerns about the amount of traffic that would be redirected to Arlington streets as a result of the lane changes. Others proposed that VDOT allow Arlington residents to use the HOT lanes for free since they were supposedly paying for the changes without getting any benefits.

An Arlington resident has also started a group to oppose the changes. The 66 Alliance had 350 members as of June 17.

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Traffic on I-66(Updated at 10:15 a.m.) Some I-66 commuters have banded together in an attempt to oppose the Virginia Department of Transportation’s proposed changes to the highway.

VDOT is proposing to convert I-66 inside the Beltway to High Occupancy Toll lanes during peak hours, accessible only to buses, cars with three or more occupants, and those willing to pay a toll. Currently, I-66 is not tolled and is accessible to cars with two or more occupants during peak times.

The proposal also reportedly removes the allowance for Clean Fuel plates, which permits commuters with such plates, issued before July 1, 2011, to drive in the HOV lanes without meeting the passenger limit.

Hybrid vehicle owner, I-66 commuter and community organizer Greg Scott is the founder of a new group called the 66 Alliance. Scott says the new changes will hurt commuters who have used these lanes for years.

“That means that VDOT plans to repeal the commuting rules under which tens of thousands of Northern Virginians have made major life decisions — where to live, where to work, where to send their kids to school, and what vehicles to drive — without so much as a public hearing, notice or comment period,” Scott said in a press release.

(VDOT is, in fact, holding numerous public meetings and collecting online comments ahead of the project.)

The changes appear to be already decided, Scott claimed, based on conversations he had with VDOT officials. He said that his I-66 commute saves him about 30 minutes of travel times each way.

“So the choice would be [tolls] or 10 days of your life every year,” Scott said.

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