Virginia officials considering HOT lanes on I-64 on the Peninsula

Virginia Department of Transportation officials are thinking about setting aside some lanes of Interstate 64 through Newport News and Hampton for cars and trucks carrying more than one person or that pay a toll.

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne sketched the idea Tuesday as a way to cut traffic congestion in Hampton Roads by creating a 45-mile network of express lanes along I-64 from Jefferson Avenue in Newport News to the Bowers Hill interchange in Chesapeake.

Drivers would be able to use existing lanes without a charge. But to use the express lanes — also called “HOT,” for high occupancy toll lanes — drivers would have to have more than one person in their vehicle or be subject to a toll.

VDOT officials have also been thinking that the planned expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel will include HOT lanes.

“We’ve got to get more throughput,” Layne told the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The idea is that every driver who carries at least one other person, or who opts to pay a toll to travel on a less crowded HOT lane, frees up room on on the rest of the highway.

“These lanes offer consumers choice. They don’t have to, if they don’t want to pay a toll. They can stay in the current lanes because there will always be a free alternative,” Layne said. And with more than one person in a vehicle, even the HOT lanes would be free.

Layne said no decision has been reached on HOT lanes on the Peninsula.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, which appropriates Virginia’s transportation funds, is slated to vote in September on authorizing express lanes between Bowers Hill and Interstate 264 as part of the project to expand the High Rise Bridge.

If VDOT determines the express lanes are feasible and if the CTB approves, the idea would be to open the express lanes on the Peninsula and the HRBT at the same time the HRBT expansion is completed in 2024, said James Utterback, VDOT’s Hampton Roads district administrator.

Layne said he wanted to air the idea now because the board’s past practice of making major decisions behind closed doors had produced bad results.

One, he said, was the decision to allow tolls to be collected on the Downtown and Midtown tunnels between Norfolk and Portsmouth before expansion of those links was completed. Another was the decision to proceed with a now-abandoned public-private partnership to replace U.S. 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg with a high speed toll road — but without securing the necessary Army Corps of Engineers permits for crossing the many wetlands along the route.

In addition to the half-century of escalating tolls in the first deal, there’s a chance that expanding the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel could trigger a clause in the contract with the private firm managing the Norfolk tunnels requiring a state payment if free alternative routes are built. And it cost Virginia $200 million to get out of the U.S. 460 deal without any road ever built.

“I don’t think that if we’d been transparent, we’d ever get to those decisions,” Layne said. He noted that the Downtown and Midtown tunnels project had been presented to the CTB behind closed doors as a done deal that would subject the state to a $1 billion loss if the board didn’t rubber-stamp it.

The express lanes network Layne floated at the CTB would come in four stages.

The first is converting the reversible HOV lanes on I-64 in Norfolk, between the I-564 Navy base interchange and the I-264 interchange, to HOT lanes. New gantries for electronic toll-collecting equipment are going up, and VDOT will test the system from September to November, with the aim of beginning to collect tolls on single-driver vehicles in December.

The second stage is tied to the expansion of the High Rise Bridge in Chesapeake. There the plan is for two new bridge lanes to be connected to the existing HOV lanes between Bowers Hill and I-264, with the whole length to operate as HOT express lanes. This will be before the CTB in September, which would have to approve.

The third stage would involve expanding the HRBT from four lanes to six. The idea is that the expansion would allow one lane each way to operate as an HOT lane between the I-664 interchange on the Peninsula and the I-564 interchange in Norfolk. If approved by the CTB, construction would start in 2019 and the expansion with the HOT lanes would open in 2024.

The final stage would convert the existing rush-hour HOV lanes on I-64 in Newport News and Hampton into HOT lanes, timed to open in 2024 with the HRBT expansion, Utterback said. It would mean separating HOT traffic from the rest of the highway, probably with plastic pipes, he said.

Drivers carrying passengers on HOT lanes who don’t want to be charged a toll will need a special transponder. The device would have a switch, which drivers will have to flip if they are carrying passengers and want to signal that to the electronic toll-collecting system, Utterback said. Police patrols would back up the honor system.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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