No Easy Answers for NoVa’s I-95 Corridor

Map credit:  (Click for larger image.)
Map credit: (Click for larger image.)

Traffic flow in the Interstate 95 corridor in Northern Virginia has improved since completion of the “Mixing Bowl” project (at the intersection with the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway) and travelers could see even more improvements when the I-95 express lane projects open for service. But several sections of I-95 still will operate at failing levels of service, while continued population and job growth in the corridor will keep the transportation infrastructure under continued stress.

So concludes a new report, “Outlook for the I-95 Corridor in Fairfax and Prince William Counties,” by David E. Versel, senior research associate at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis.

The population along the 21-mile area under study amounted to 566,000 in 2010. The highway segment is one of the most heavily congested stretches of interstate in the United States; the arterials and collector roads feeding the interstate are highly congested as well. Metro, Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and local bus services carry roughly 27,000 riders daily but there is no easy way to add new capacity. Meanwhile, carpooling is declining, “likely due to a shift away from the historic model of large numbers of Federal employees who travel to the same destinations each day.” With the VRE already operating on a “standing room only” basis, there isn’t any slack in the rail system. Yet populations forecasts anticipate growth to 692,000 by 2030.

So, what do we do about it? While Versel sketches the challenges facing this critical region, he doesn’t offer much in the way of remedies. Such was not his aim. But the question remains, how does the region, already teetering on the edge of transportation dysfunction, absorb 125,000 more inhabitants in an era of chronically constrained state and local-government resources?

A couple of observations… First, a huge number of workers are commuting to jobs in Arlington, Alexandria and Washington, D.C. In other words, the total lack of balance between jobs and housing causes people to commute long distances to reach the major metropolitan job centers. Much of the solution resides in Arlington, Alexandria and D.C., which, in an ideal world, would make more land available at greater density for residential development. While re-developing is occurring, there are institutional constraints to how rapidly these urban-core jurisdictions can bring new housing online. For all practical purposes, Fairfax and Prince William are on their own.

Second, what Fairfax and Prince William can influence is where the new growth goes. If they allow growth to be smeared across the countryside at low densities, they will create massive congestion headaches for local roads. It makes far more sense to encourage balanced, higher-density development in nodes along I-95 that minimize the impact on local roads and create a market for commuter bus services.

Third, pray for technological deliverance. If smart-road technologies, driverless vehicles and the platooning of cars (moving very close together at high speeds) become a reality within a decade, perhaps technology can increase the highway’s capacity at modest cost. Otherwise, there’s no un-breaking the egg. The area’s dysfunctional land use patterns consign it to decades of transportation purgatory.


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7 responses to “No Easy Answers for NoVa’s I-95 Corridor”

  1. NewVirginia Avatar

    There is an extremely easy solution to the I-95 problem. Make drivers pay for the space they take up on the road – clearly a scarce good – and vary those fines enough to maintain free flow traffic. As the low usage of the (extremely cheap) HOT lanes on 495 shows, even a very small toll – much less than what drivers ought to be paying – is enough to deter huge numbers of cars. Clearly the value of this road is below the price we are collectively paying for it.

    Create a variable toll and economic justice will be served, the added cost will start to address the sprawl problem, and the cash-strapped VDOT will have some more funds to help maintain one of the state’s costliest roads without dipping into the general fund. Air quality also improves as idling decreases (there are some pretty incredible studies on this).

    But more importantly – put a toll on 95 and traffic capacity will rise dramatically, allowing us to make better use of the road and save millions (possibly billions) in lost productivity due to congestion. Roads are not like hoses – they can’t handle more and more water by pushing it through faster and faster. They are more like bottles of ketchup – the more you try to push out the more it clots up and nothing gets through. Once a road hits its congestion point, the number of cars it can move through collapses exponentially and the interstate becomes as useless as a two lane country road. The frustrating thing about congestion to transportation planners is that, the more people try to get somewhere on a road, the fewer people actually can. Once a toll is put on the road, it can be varied up or down to allow cars to “bid” for the right to use the road. After pushing out marginal drivers or pushing them to drive at different times, the road can flow freely, get everyone where they need to be, and 95 can be less of a waste of space.

    There was a time when the Interstate system was a sacred cow that had to be kept free, but sense has since prevailed. A toll is difficult politically, but not impossible. It’s how Singapore does it, it’s how numerous cities around the U.S. do it, and it works. The CATO Institute loves it. Reason Magazine loves it. Transportation planners love it. Environmentalists love it. Literally everyone on both sides of the spectrum who has given any significant amount of thought to the concept loves it, with the exception of the trucking lobby. It’s just a matter of getting over America’s free-roads entitlement complex.

  2. NewVirginia Avatar

    I should say the problem was not always purely political – it was also technological. That problem is gone, though. Innovations like the EasyPass and complex traffic monitoring systems have drastically lowered the transaction costs involved in a toll like this.

  3. re: the concept of “space” on a highway.

    I basically agree but most do not. they see it as punitive, unfair.

    We’ve developed a culture where no matter what we pay for roads, we’re totaly convinced it’s enough to pay for whatever roads are needed to provide a acceptably congestion-free trip.

    they don’t like gas tax increases, either.

    it’s almost like “free roads” are a guaranteed “right” and the government is violating a basic covenant with citizens when they want more taxes or tolls and especially so if the tolls are levied by a private company.

  4. VDOT and Virginia crossed the “what to do about I-95” bridge several years ago when they decided that the last remaining unused right-of-way would NOT be used to add more “free” lanes.

    They decided that the answer to congestion on I-95 is not to feed it with new capacity but instead to manage it with dynamic tolls.

    The amusing thing about the carpooling (and slugging) is that both “disasters” have been predicted by various folks with various views:

    1. – SOLO toll payers will squeaze out the carpoolers

    2. – carpoolers will overwhelm the road and squeeze out toll payers.

    but given the fact that the operator can boost tools whenever they think there are too many SOLO cars – they can easily price out the SOLO drivers.

    the other circumstance – that too many will carpool and the operator will not make enough money is probably more likely of the two but if/when that happens, I suspect (as do others) that the HOV number for “free” will go up.

    HOT lanes on I-95 is going to happen a lot quicker than people think.

    If their performance on HOT-laning I-495 is any guide to timeline, this time next year, we’re going to be on the cusp of tolls on I-95.

    the idea that we’d widen I-95 to add free lanes is the most often heard comment, cry, “suggestion”, etc but it’s not going to happen. To do that, you’d have to tear down commercial property along with the taxes paid.

    People in our region are going to have to have a collective “aha” moment on this. Virginia and VDOT made that decision – years ago and next year – we’re going to see the result.

  5. NewVirginia Avatar

    It’s almost like nature is violating a basic right when it does not provide us with roads without requiring us to pay taxes to build and maintain them. I am constantly blown away by the number of people who assume that gas taxes should be lower, tolls should not exist, and if that doesn’t give us enough money to have shiny roads everywhere, then it must be because some government agency somewhere is wasting their money.

  6. Indeed. Too many say that the gas tax is the perfect user fee.

    I don’t think it is at all. The average person has no clue how much they pay for roads.. they just “know” it’s “plenty” and they’re expecting as much infrastructure “as it takes” to provide them with their mobility.

    And if someone suggests the gas tax is inadequate or tolls are a better way to assess user fees.. you’re a dog butt or worse…

    I cannot say how many times someone has said that they have “no choice” but to drive 100+ miles a day – SOLO… and that’s the ONLY WAY they can do it.

  7. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Perhaps the central problem to New Virginia’s quick fix is fairness and workability. Suppose you’ve got a drought going on. The reservoirs are dangerously low. How do you best ration scarce water among citizens?

    And what solutions are best for all concerned, rich and power, powerful and powerless. Of course over the ages many societies have found their own very different remedies. Which is best for us? And which get at the root of the problem. And so finds long term solutions as well as interim ones.

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