It’s only just begun and needs a major assist from Maryland to reach its potential, but the 495 Express Lanes Northern Extension (aka 495 NEXT) project kicked off March 14 with a groundbreaking ceremony 11 stories up on The Perch at Capital One’s Tysons campus.
The privately financed $660 million project will add two high-occupancy-toll lanes in each direction on 2.5 miles of the Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and George Washington Memorial Parkway.
The project will help uncork traffic congestion in Northern Virginia, said Gov. Youngkin, a Fairfax County resident for the past 24 years. “I’ve spent many a day sitting right there in traffic, trying to get somewhere,” he said.
“Infrastructure investment is more than just concrete slabs,” Youngkin said. “It’s more than cranes. It’s about quality of life. It’s about getting off the highway and into the bleachers at your children’s basketball games.”
The initiative will help to “achieve the commonwealth’s goals of moving more people, providing reliable travel choices and reducing congestion,” said Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Commissioner Stephen Brich.
The project is a public-private partnership between the state government and Transurban, which has built Express Lanes along the Beltway and in other parts of Northern Virginia.
Such partnerships “serve as exceptional testing grounds for emerging technology . . . to pull us into the future, including conducting autonomous-vehicle trials and road-user charging,” said Amanda Baxter, Transurban’s senior vice president for Virginia market operations in North America.
Transurban chose Lane Construction as the project’s design-build contractor, following a competitive process.
“We’ve teed this all up for you nicely now,” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller said to the contractor’s representatives who were present. “Now is the time to execute, and we know you will.”
The project’s cost is high, given its short length, but has many complications, including construction of many flyovers and connections, Miller said.
The initiative also will reduce cut-through traffic in neighborhoods, reduce accidents by an estimated 20 percent, create about 6,300 jobs and have a long-term economic impact of $880 million, officials projected.
“We’ve got to get people out of single-use vehicles if we are to continue to grow the way we want to grow our economy,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D).
In addition to adding the new Express Lanes, the project will:
• Replace or rehabilitate seven bridges.
• Replace nine existing sound walls and build one new one.
• Install stormwater-management measures along that stretch of highway for the first time.
• Improve the Scotts Run stream area.
• Add four miles of new bicycle and pedestrian connections.
• Provide $2.2 million annually from Transurban for new bus service linking Maryland and Virginia via the American Legion Bridge. About 170,000 riders will use the buses each year, officials anticipated.
The project team still is refining the initiative’s final design and work crews will undertake preliminary work such as surveying and mobilization before construction begins, possibly as early as this summer, officials said.
The new lanes, slated for completion in 2025, will use “dynamic pricing” that fluctuates according to demand. Mass-transit users and or those driving in vehicles with three or more occupants will able to use the lanes for free.
Pierce Coffee, president of Transurban North America, thanked VDOT officials for their long partnership on the Express Lanes.
“Our trust and collaboration have multiplied benefits across the region,” she said. “Virginia’s innovative vision and creativity have helped solve some of our most challenging infrastructure situations in Northern Virginia.”
State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-McLean-Loudoun) said she was glad to see the project advance following a “long, arduous process” with plenty of public input.
“I think we ended up with the best project we could possibly have designed,” Favola said.
The weather on the urban rooftop park was bracing, with temperatures made cooler by a brisk wind and skyscrapers that blocked the sun’s warming rays. Some in the crowd were wore hats, gloves, scarves and heavy coats, while others went hatless.
Ben Ross, chairman of Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, had the warmest headgear of all, a heavy fox-fur hat he purchased decades ago in Russia. Ross opposed the project, saying it would worsen traffic in the region.
“Transurban can’t make money unless they can charge high tolls, and they can’t charge high tolls unless the traffic is really bad,” Ross said.
Transportation officials instead should focus on expanding mass-transit options, such as adding a third track on the MARC train rail line, finishing the Purple Line and investing more in Metrorail, Ross said.
Jason Stanford, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, disagreed, saying the multi-modal 495 NEXT project will be a “huge” part of the region’s long-range plan to build an Express Lanes network, helping those using both the toll and regular lanes.
A key factor for the project is out of Virginia’s hands. Maryland officials would need to extend the Express Lanes over the American Legion Bridge and all the way to Interstate 270.
Maryland has made significant strides on its part of the long-range effort, including approving a pre-development agreement, working on the project’s design and doing traffic studies, Stanford said.
“This really is a win for everybody,” he said. “Our region is expected to gain 1 million new jobs and 1.3 million new people over the next two decades. We need to expand the capacity of our transportation system to handle that.”