Tuesday’s groundbreaking for the $1 billion I-95 Express Lanes project in Northern Virginia had all the elements one typically finds at such events: gold shovels, beaming politicians, and speeches extolling the bounty of benefits to be realized in the not-too-distant future.
But the ceremony also included another staple for major transportation efforts in the Old Dominion: multiple shout-outs to the private-sector partner—in this case, the partnership of Transurban and Fluor—whose substantial investment made the whole thing possible.
Since enactment of its Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) in 1995, Virginia has taken full advantage of the P3 model to not move a wide range of funding-starved projects along, and initiate others that prior to delivery of the unsolicited proposal, had been largely afterthoughts to transportation planners.
The parade of PPTAs includes the completed Richmond-area I-895 Pocahontas Parkway and Route 288, and the State Route 199 corridor improvement project in Jamestown; construction of 10 interchanges in the Route 28 corridor adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport; improvements to the Midtown and Downtown Tunnels/MLK Boulevard Extension in Norfolk and Portsmouth; the 23-mile extension of Metrorail to Dulles Airport and beyond; and the I-495 Express Lanes along the west side of the Capital Beltway.
And with each PPTA, the process seems to get a little easier, and a little faster. It took less than a decade to move the P3 proposal for the 29-mile I-95 Express Lanes from concept to construction, a pace that Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) characterized as “warp speed” compared with other, more conventionally delivered infrastructure projects.
Having a good track record with PPTAs helps, says Tony Kinn, Virginia’s transportation P3 director. But there’s more to it.
“A lot of people try to make P3s complicated,” Kinn explains. “It’s about doing your homework on a project, and presenting a strong and aggressive proposal to private sector so they will want to participate. When do that, you’re working business to business.”
Not everyone is enamored with the idea of an EZPass-oriented transportation strategy.
Plans to toll the existing Midtown and Downtown tunnels in order to fund construction a new tube have been greeted with community criticism and lawsuits, while users of the Dulles Greenway—the genesis of privatized infrastructure in Virginia—have demanded an investigation in the roadway’s toll structure. (Virginia’s Attorney General has said that under the Greenway owners’ current deal with the state, there’s little that can be done.)
Nor has the I-95 project been free of controversy. Plans to extend the express up I-395 inside the Beltway were dropped in the face of lawsuits by Arlington County over disputed environmental studies.
Yet no one denies that P3 transportation projects will increasingly be a way of life in Virginia, especially as speaker after speaker at the I-95 Express Lanes ceremony bemoaned the scarcity of public transportation dollars (though no one went into why such funds are scarce; this was intended to be a happy occasion, after all).
And if Transurban/Fluor’s investment resolves what has been a decades-long transportation headache for commuters, visitors, and through travelers in about two years, Virginia officials are OK with that. (And it seems certain that a lot of those motorists will be too.)
Other P3 projects are already bubbling across the commonwealth, including the U.S. Route 460 Corridor Improvements, a project Kinn hopes to have under contract by year’s end (“I’ll be disappointed if it’s not,” he says); the widening of U.S. Route 58 along the North Carolina border; and the Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia.
And as far as Kinn is concerned, the possibilities of applying Virginia’s PPTA model to other transportation needs are virtually endless.
“I’d like to do three or four of these ceremonies a year,” he says.