It was never an ideal fit- Lexis lanes in the People’s Republic of Arlington? Still, many were stunned last week when the Virginia Department of Transportation put the kibosh on plans to build high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on six miles of I-395 inside the Beltway.
County board members tried not to gloat, but their press release sneaked in the word “vindicated” when announcing how Arlington’s $1.5 million lawsuit was one reason-if not the reason – the state backed down. Now our teeming Shirley Highway will still host an experiment in privately collected, optional variable toll rates to ease congestion and raise revenue. It’ll just happen south of Springfield and off the agenda of Arlington’s smart-growth greenies, who for 17 months endured a boatload of abuse for their “shenanigans” from the Chamber of Commerce, state solons and local editorialists.
Board member Jay Fisette pronounced himself “satisfied,” noting that the revised approach requires a commitment to work with localities and a full environmental impact analysis of the lanes and related projects. That was “why we took out the lawsuit,” he told me. “I wish it hadn’t cost anything, but the likely costs of mitigating and fixing the impact of the earlier proposal would have dwarfed” what was spent on litigation.
HOT lanes no doubt have their place in our region’s tool kit of transportation remedies. Washington-area drivers currently waste 70 hours a year idling in traffic jams, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. In these revenue-strapped times, it could make sense for private companies to step in and exploit technology to allow those fuming motorists who want to open an E-Z pass account to buy their way to a detour that, at the given moment, is joyfully less gridlocked. Studies in California show the lanes are not even used primarily by the wealthy.
The problem, say Arlington planners, was that the commonwealth’s $1 billion plan used a 2005 federal waiver to bypass local input. Without some say in the design of entry ramps, for example, Arlington can’t protect nearby schools, clinics, daycare centers and neighborhoods-primarily low-income and minority-from being polluted and concretized. Equally worrisome, they said, was the risk that any progress in reducing congestion and raising revenue would be negated by a rise in solo drivers spurning public transit.
Chamber president Rich Doud warned that the lawsuit could undermine traffic calming, damage the county’s relationship with the private sector and drive up HOT lanes’ cost. “We find it kind of bizarre,” he told the Examiner. “As far as I can tell, they don’t have many friends agreeing with them on this from outside Arlington, and I guess counting us, not many friends inside Arlington, either.”
Republican Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax retaliated by using his chairmanship of a subcommittee to stall a bill by Arlington-based Del. Bob Brink to extend Arlington’s hotel tax surcharge. “If they’ve got so much money for silly, abusive, intimidating, frivolous lawsuits like this, then they obviously have plenty of cash in Arlington,” he said.
Fisette notes this isn’t the first decision made in Arlington “that was not fully popular,” mentioning the 1970s fight over the design of I-66 and 1950s desegregation. “Right now, the legislature has shown some retribution toward our community and delegation. It is uncalled for.”
Ah, the little county that could.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org