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McPike talks tough on toll lanes at Manassas town hall

MANASSAS, Va. — State Senator Jeremy McPike (D-Manassas, Prince William) took a hard stance against the E-ZPass Express toll lanes on Interstate 95.

“This is the biggest land giveaway I have ever seen,” McPike on Thursday, April 6 told a crowd of about 70 attendees at a joint town hall with Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, who’s also seeking the Democratic nomination for Virginia Governor in the coming June 13 Primary Election.

“We’re going to have to find a way to uncouple ourselves from this deal,” he added.

The 2011 deal made before he was elected in 2015 to replace the long-serving Charles Colgan, handed over the exiting I-95 HOV lanes from Dumfries to the Pentagon to the private Australian firm Transurban to improve, and to toll for 80 years. The lanes were extended to Garrisonville Road in North Stafford, and a third toll express lane added between Prince William Parkway and Alexandria.

But the addition of a fourth lane to the regular southbound travel lanes, along a heavily congested two-mile stretch of highway between Route 123 in Lake Ridge and Prince William Parkway in Woodbridge, is what has the senator so riled.

Earlier this year, Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick told Prince William County leaders that widening I-95’s travel lanes could take toll-paying drivers off the Express Lanes. And that could lead to a “compensation event” where the state must pay Transurban to make up for lost toll revenue.

On the Express Lanes, commuters ride free in vehicles of three or more occupants. Those who drive along, or have only one passenger must pay a toll to avoid congestion.

In November, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffee announced more express lanes would be built on I-66 between Haymarket at the Capital Beltway by a consortium of multi-national firms to include Cintra and Meridiam, which operate toll road projects in Canada, Columbia, throughout Europe, and the U.S.

McPike said the I-66 deal does provide $500 million to the state to improve feeder roads and to implement more bus service along the soon-to-be-built I-66 toll lanes. Right now, drivers in vehicles of two or more may ride on I-66’s HOV lanes, but the rules will change by 2020 when drivers, like their counterparts on I-95 and 495 will need three or more occupants in their cars to ride free on the express lanes.

McPike next year also plans to reintroduce a bill that would require Transurban and other toll lane operators to post estimated travel time signs in their facilities to give drivers a sense of how long it would take to reach their destination if they chose to use the express lanes vs. the travel lanes. Similar signs exist in the travel lanes on I-95 north in Dumfries, as well as I-64 east toward Virginia Beach.

Northam was pressed on transportation fixes by some at the town hall held at the George Mason Science and Technology Campus in Manassas. He told them he liked Germany’s public transportation model of light rail, and that he, a doctor on Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore, conducts medical consultations via web video so his patients don’t have to travel to his office. He also said more rural communities in the state should have access to high-speed internet to promote teleworking.

“I was here tonight to talk about the economy and economic development, to make sure we have economic opportunities for all,” said Northam. “We have a lot of priorities and transportation is one of them.”

State lawmakers in 2013 raised the state’s gas tax for the first time since 1986 to raise nearly $1 billion per year to fund new transportation improvements. Since then, legislators have been unwilling to revisit transportation issues and set a “gas tax floor” that would maintain a stable level of funding for transit agencies in the event gas tax revenues — based on the price of per gallon of gas at the pump — decline.

“The floor on transit funding is something we worked on for the last two years…that’s the right thing to do… it passed the Senate… these types of legislations get defeated in the [Republican controlled] House [of Delegates], and we need to change some of these seats,” said Northam.

Northam faces Virginia’s former 5th District Congressman Tom Perriello, who represented communities from Charlottesville to Danville from 2009 to 2011.

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