Virginia looking to build E-ZPass Express Lanes on I-66 and I-95 to DC

Public-private partnerships for roads are popular in Virginia because politicians can build new lanes on congested roads without raising taxes or cutting spending. But they want to make sure the decisions are smart.

On Thursday, there was an important meeting in Richmond where those lanes were a hot topic.

"I want to make sure the taxpayer is getting the biggest bang for the buck," said Virginia Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R), chairman of the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability. "I want to makes sure they are getting from A to B -- getting home, getting to work, getting to their kids' soccer match faster."

They are all looking for the next place to add E-ZPass Express Lanes.

Transurban -- the company that spent billions to build the new Express Lanes on the beltway and I-95 -- was asked what's next. Expand up I-95 all the way to the D.C. bridges? I-66 outside the beltway?

"The analysis we have done in northern Virginia suggests there are other opportunities to extend this network to provide an option for commuters who do use other major commuter routes in the region," said Jennifer Aument, Transurban's group general manager.

Another option is coming from the governor. He wants to convert the HOV lanes on I-66 -- inside the beltway -- to toll lanes. The Republicans who control the legislature said that is a non-starter.

"They're talking about tolling people inside the beltway -- no new lanes -- and using that money, not to expand capacity on I-66, but to do bike lanes and transit and other projects that have nothing to do with those commuters who are paying the freight," said Del. Hugo.

The biggest fear in Richmond is losing money on one of these roads. They are still reeling from losing over $300 million on U.S. Route 460 in southern Virginia. The private company never broke ground and all of the taxpayer's money are down the drain.

Another concern that we have been reporting since last year are some drivers on the Express Lanes are furious that they have been forced to pay thousands in fines for accidentally missing E-ZPass tolls.

"We'll continue to refine that system -- in working with the legislature, with customers, with our partners," said Aument.

Lawmakers say enforcing tolls is complicated.

"You've got to distinguish between the inadvertent and the deliberate, and I think that's been a challenge for them and we'll see what progress they make," said Del. James LeMunyon (R). "If we need to have a legislative solution for that, we certainly can."

Del. LeMunyon also said it is important to improve the toll collection system before any new toll lanes are used on I-66 or elsewhere in Virginia.

"Does it makes sense that it's the private partner's responsibility?" said LeMunyon. "Typically, it's the police and the government who enforce tolls."

The commission will have at least seven more meetings this year -- some in northern Virginia.

Keep in mind this is an election year for all state delegates in Virginia and traffic is a big issue for voters.