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PRTC lost $1.5 million when HOT lanes opened on I-95

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New toll lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 brought more options to commuters when they opened one year ago.

Single drivers can now pay a toll and ride the lanes, whereas before all vehicles had to have at least three occupants during peak times. Today, the toll lanes are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and all drivers must have an electronic E-ZPass to use them. A vehicle with three or more occupants still rides free.

The lanes were always designed to move more people than vehicles. But when the newly converted HOT lanes opened, they ended up hurting the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission — the agency that moves nothing but people by providing commuter bus service in Prince William County, Manassas, and Manassas Park.

The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission lost $1.5 million per year in federal “State of Good Repair” funding when the old HOV lanes were converted to toll lanes. The Federal Government made the change on Jan. 15, 2015, and it affected all transit agencies that operate services on HOT lanes across the country.

It couldn’t come at a worse time. PRTC is facing a $9 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2017 (starting July 1, 2016), and the agency now has its hand out looking to Prince William County Government to pick up the tab.

“This had a significant negative impact on PRTC’s budget because all of our services on I-95 use the HOT lanes,” said PRTC spokeswoman Christine Rodrigo.

The transit agency lobbied unsuccessfully to have federal officials “grandfather” the I-95 lanes, making them eligible for State of Good Repair funding. It also tried to get to get lawmakers to change their minds on how they decide to fund transit systems.

“PRTC and other transportation providers in the same situation had pushed to change the definition of the services that qualify for [High-Intensity Motorbus] funding in the new federal transportation funding bill, FAST-ACT, that was recently passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful,” added Rodrigo.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors will be tasked this year with figuring out how to keep local transit buses rolling before it approves its new budget in April. Cutting services, tax increases, and asking localities that have residents who use the service pay their fair share are all options on the table. 

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state transportation officials again want to convert HOV lanes to toll lanes, this time on I-66 in Prince William and Fairfax counties. The plan calls for turning the portion of the highway outside the Capital Beltway into a multi-modal corridor with six travel lanes (three in each direction) and four HOT lanes (two in each direction).

The existing HOV lanes on I-66 would be converted to toll lanes and, just as they are on I-95, drivers must have an electronic E-ZPass to use the lanes. And just like on I-95, vehicles with three or more occupants will be able to use the lanes for free — ending the HOV-2 rule that allows vehicles with just two or more occupants to ride free.

“If the I-66 HOV lanes are converted to HOT lanes, as is being discussed, PRTC once again would lose additional federal funds by no longer being able to claim those operations,” Rodrigo added.

Federal officials say they’re working on the problem.

“HOT lanes have proven to be a valuable tool in helping Northern Virginians realize transportation improvements that otherwise would not have happened, allowing us to expand commuter choices while still preserving carpool benefits. I’m disappointed in the Federal Transit Administration’s decision to no longer support transit operations on roads converted to HOT lanes despite the fact that such facilities have proven to improve transit access, and will continue to work with my colleagues in the Northern Virginia congressional delegation to try and mitigate any loss of federal revenue,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Fairfax, Prince William)

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Loudoun, Prince William) serve on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Congresswoman Comstock is working with her Northern Virginia colleagues and the FTA to help reinstate this important funding for PRTC,” said Comstock spokesman Jeff Marschner.

Further cuts by the Federal Transit Administration to the “State of Good Repair” program also mean an additional $500,000 in annual funding cut from PRTC’s budget.

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