Editor’s Note: The following article is one in a series of six profiles of winners of NCPPP’s 2015 National Public-Private Partnership Awards that recognize organizations and individuals who have gone above and beyond to advance the concept and implementation of P3s across the country. The winners were honored during P3 Connect 2015 in Boston.
It has been suggested that flexibility is the key to air power. On the Capital Beltway in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., it can be said that flexibility is the key to a smoother commute.
Northern Virginia’s 495 Express Lanes project has shown that offering drivers the flexibility to choose between two sets of roadways for their daily commutes, and whether to pay user fees to make their travel more convenient, can help reduce congestion on busy roadways.
The express lanes comprise 28 miles of four high-occupancy toll lanes (two lanes running 14 miles in each direction) on heavily traveled Interstate 495 from the Springfield Interchange to just north of the Dulles Toll Road. Opened in 2012, they introduced new traffic patterns, entry and exit points, an exclusively electronic toll collection system (via E-Z pass transponders), dynamic tolling and ways to monitor and manage traffic flow along the lanes.
NCPPP presented the Project Innovation Award to the following partners behind this project: Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and Transurban, which develops and manages urban toll roads in the United States and Australia. The concessionaire agreed to operate and maintain the lanes for 80 years in return for collecting toll payments.
The express lanes are equipped to closely monitor traffic for the purpose of setting toll rates based on user volume to ensure that they do not become congested. Microwave traffic sensors located at one-third-mile intervals along the lanes collect real-time data on traffic speed, volume and other statistics and send them to an operations center that feeds the data into a dynamic algorithm. The algorithm sets toll pricing based on the number of cars that are using the express lanes. Message signs on each approach to the lanes inform drivers of the current toll rates, allowing them to decide whether to use the express or non-toll lanes.
The express lanes also feature electronic toll collection, which eliminated the need for traffic-snarling toll plazas. Instead, drivers must use E-Z Pass transponders, certain types of which allow vehicles carrying three or more people to ride for free. Tolls are collected by one of nine toll gantries located above the lanes as vehicles move under them. This electronic tolling system allows the express lanes to accommodate more than four times the amount of traffic per hour than do roads with toll booths.
Technology also is used to detect accidents that could disrupt traffic flow. The continuously operated express lanes operations center has a traffic control room with a dedicated video wall that displays live feeds from cameras monitoring the lanes. The data center and control room constantly send and receive information to manage traffic and tolling activity. The center communicates with VDOT’s traffic management network to share information and incident management responsibility and taps into VDOT’s Traffic Management System, 511 Virginia and the shared VDOT/Fairfax County Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center to keep traffic moving on the Beltway.
This project also made a significant contribution to the Beltway’s 45-year-old infrastructure by replacing more than 50 aging bridges and overpasses, upgrading 10 interchanges and improving bike and pedestrian access. Through strategic use of advanced technology, this P3 is able to collaborate closely and seamlessly with various state transportation departments. In the process, it has produced one of the nation’s most innovative and efficient roadways.