ACTIONS have consequences,
but so does inaction. And the
Fredericksburg region’s chronic traffic problem is one of the consequences of the commonwealth’s decadeslong failure to allocate enough money in the state budget to expand and maintain Virginia’s 57,867-mile road system to keep up with population growth.
That failure directly led to another consequence. The contract the Virginia Department of Transportation signed with TransUrban to help ease the resulting traffic congestion on Interstate 95 by building Express toll lanes includes a poison pill: The commonwealth agreed not to build any new lanes on I–95—even at bottlenecks like the one south of the Occoquan River crossing, where four lanes abruptly narrow into three—or else it has to pay a hefty fee to the company to compensate it for reduced toll revenue.
The resulting backups, at all hours of the day and all days of the week, slow traffic all up and down the I–95 corridor. That’s not an accident. The contract with TransUrban actually requires a certain amount of built-in congestion so that drivers in the “free” lanes get so frustrated, they decide to use the toll lanes instead.
If the commonwealth does anything to reduce the congestion, TransUrban can sue it for breach of contract. And they would have every right to do so under the original agreement and contract addendum in which TransUrban agreed to privately finance both the Fredericksburg extension lanes (FREDEX) at a cost of about $565 million, and the Northbound Rappahannock River Crossing ($277 million).
Tolls are the way TransUrban recoups its considerable investment in the extra highway capacity. And when I–95 is unable to handle the traffic load, tolls go up and more revenue for the company is generated. So on the pretext of not raising the gas tax, state officials and legislators cooked up a recipe for permanent congestion. The gas tax currently covers about 42 percent of VDOT’s costs (with 23.6 percent coming from federal funds and the rest chiefly from sales tax revenue.)
But Gov. Ralph Northam’s new budget proposes raising the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon anyway.
Some local legislators have been urging Northam to renegotiate the contract with TransUrban to address the bottleneck issue on I–95, although the state doesn’t seem to have much leverage to get the company to agree to reduce its profits. But with the completion of the Rappahannock River Crossings, new bottlenecks will be created right here in Fredericksburg.
It will cost about $70 million to add a fourth merge lane to both northbound and southbound I–95 between Exits 130 (State Road 3) and 126 (Massaponax) to correct the bottlenecks that will result from the North- and Southbound Rappahannock River Crossing projects.
The commonwealth should proceed with the construction of these two critical merge lanes and just pay TransUrban for any lost revenue. Depending on the size of the penalty, the governor’s proposed 4-cent gas tax should pay for at least some, if not most of it.
Keeping this vital artery, the most heavily traveled interstate highway in the U.S., open and running smoothly should be the commonwealth’s top transportation priority. And state officials should learn their lesson and not sign any more contracts that instead of fixing the problem, create a state of permanent congestion.