Tolls and other user-based revenue models may well be the future of highway construction financing, but owners and investors may be in for a long wait before fully reaping the returns of this new era.
Take the eight-month old I-495 Capital Beltway Express Lanes in Northern Virginia, for example. Australia-based Transurban, which operates the HOT lanes for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDO)T, reports that daily average revenue for the three months ending June 30 reached $45,270.
The good news is that the figure marks a 60-percent increase from the first three months of 2013. The not-so-good news is that it’s well off the pace necessary to reach the $46.1 million in annual revenue projected for the $1.6 billion Express Lanes’ first year of operation.
To be sure, that forecast was issued in the heady pre-recession days of 2007. Though the DC area’s economy held up reasonably well compared with other metropolitan areas, conditions are most assuredly different. (DC’s traffic congestion may not be exactly what it was six years ago, but it’s close enough.)
Across the Potomac, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MTA) ramped down expectations for its two-year old, $2.5 billion Inter County Connector (ICC). Though critics of the still-controversial highway accused say the move was intended to present a more favorable ridership performance of the toll-only, the agency countered that the changes simply reflect more current economic conditions.
In any event, the ICC’s revenues topped $19.7 million in fiscal year 2012--one million dollars more than projected. (Data for FY 2013, which ended on June 30 is being audied, and will be released this fall.)
While the ICC is touting its success in helping reduce travel time across DC’s northern suburbs, Transurban and VDOT insist that area motorists are still familiarizing themselves with the Beltway Express Lanes, and have taken steps such as changing access signage and increasing the speed limit to 65 in hopes of luring customers. Observers have also noted that it’s not always clear when the Express Lanes offer a significant time advantage over the existing non-tolled travel lanes.
Nevertheless, it’s obviously far too early to label either project a success or a bust. Transportation agencies and investors know full well that infrastructure projects are inherently long-term propositions that are usually planned, built, and operated in distinct, sometimes radically different economic conditions. They should consider themselves fortunate if the only thing that really comes back to haunt them are overly optimistic press releases, which critics and reporters will dig up when examining what went wrong.
And with the I-95 Express Lanes under construction south of the Beltway and similar projects under consideration, Northern Virginia’s HOT lanes network may well blossom when motorists can utilize a more extensive, seamless network, rather than paying to do little more than provide a short hop from one traffic backup to another.
What these projects can do right away is remind agencies of the need for diligent planning and risk assessment before hooking up with investors to take the toll road plunge. They can tout their projects, build public support, and invest in studies, but those numbers had better add up, because they’ll be stuck with the results—and the consequences--regardless of how many short-term problems are addressed.
One example can be found just a few hours south of DC in Richmond—Pocahontas 895, the 8.8-mile, $324 million highway that was the first project approved under Virginia’s 1995 Public-Private Transportation Act.
Though a milestone in the movement toward P3s, the highway opened in 2002 has yet to catch on with motorists. Transurban, which took over the highway in 2006, unable to meet payments on more than $300 million in debt. Last month, Transurban confirmed that a consortium of European banks will take over Parkway operations.
Under its 99-year operating agreement, Virginia faces no financial obligation for the Pocahontas 895’s revenue shortfall. But owning flagship P3 projects with cash flow problems doesn’t send the best of messages either.