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Virginia explores extending the 495 Express lanes to the American legion

Washington

A PLAN to expand the 495 Express Lanes to the American Legion Bridge will add 4.8 km to Virginia's system of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes - and provide a critical link to the region's growing toll network.

The proposed highway widening would complete the last leg of a tolling system on northern Virginia's portion of the Capital Beltway and connect to Maryland's proposed toll lanes for its side of the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

"Now with Maryland talking about (toll lanes on) their side of the river and doing something in that stretch, there is more incentive for us to move forward with this project," said Susan Shaw, director of Mega Projects for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

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"For us, it is completing that network and offering people a choice," Ms Shaw said "There's no way we could build as many lanes as the traffic would want, but we are trying to give people who carpool or pay a chance to have a reliable trip." Supporters say the proposed highway expansion near the Maryland border will increase capacity at one of the region's worst traffic choke points. Critics say the money should instead be used on transit projects; they also argue that tolls are just another regressive tax.

Virginia is on pace to create a network of 144 km of HOT lanes by 2022; major additions are already under construction, including a 13 km stretch of express lanes on Interstate 395 and another 35 km on Interstate 66 outside the Beltway. On the Interstate 95 corridor, planners are developing 16 km more of express lanes to extend to Fredericksburg. If built as anticipated within the next five years, the 495 Express Lanes extension would grow the network to 150 km.

The 495 Express Lanes stretch 22 km from the Dulles Toll Road to the Springfield interchange where it connects with the 95 Express Lanes. The latest proposal would add express lanes from the Dulles Toll Road interchange to the American Legion Bridge.

Four additional lanes - two in each direction - would be built and tolled; the existing lanes would remain free. The project could require the acquisition of nearby property in tight areas where there is not enough room to expand.

In April, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) secured US$6 million to conduct an environmental study, determine the cost and identify financing for the project, right of way impacts, and potential entry and exit points for the lanes. The study is expected to be completed next year, with the potential to move forward with construction as soon as it is finished, state officials said.

There are as many as 240,000 daily crossings on the American Legion Bridge where congestion is the worst, according to VDOT. Traffic backups routinely extend from the bridge in Maryland to Tysons in northern Virginia - even outside rush hours. Virginia officials say the problem is regional and requires a regional solution, which is why they say they are coordinating with Maryland to ensure relief is planned on both sides of the Potomac. They also want to ensure the Virginia project is compatible with whatever Maryland builds.

"Who builds what is still out there?" Ms Shaw said. "But everybody agrees that this will be way better if we both have a project that matches up exactly to really do something that will address the bottleneck in the middle." Maryland's US$9 billion plan is still in the early planning stage. It would create a variable toll system on that state's side of the Beltway, I-270 and the B-W Parkway. However, it does not include HOT lanes, which allow carpoolers to use the lanes free. WP