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I-95 traffic study shows Virginia on the hook for any attempts to fix

A graph showing the number of lost hours on stretches of I-95 with the southbound lane over the Occoquan River showing a massive spike.
Virginia Department of Transportation
Screen grab
A graph showing the number of lost hours on stretches of I-95 with the southbound lane over the Occoquan River showing a massive spike.

The stretch of interstate 95 that runs just south of Washington D.C. is one of the worst in the country. And investigators with the state’s legislative watchdog agency have bad news about any future attempts to address the problem.

Anyone who's driven from D.C. down to Richmond or back is aware of the traffic terror zone where I-95 crosses the Occoquan River. This stretch of road, which brings Routes 1 and 123 into 95, was found to be the busiest route on the north-south running highway, according to a state study from 2021. An estimated 1.2 million hours of economic and family time is lost for the poor souls trapped in its traffic backups.

“If you look at the license plates — tons of out-of-towners. It's not just commuter traffic," said Senator Jeremy McPike who's among those with complainants about the current traffic issues. "It’s hurting everybody, and something’s got to finally get done about it.”

But at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, or JLARC, this week, Director Justin Brown brought up a troubling point. The express lanes designed to alleviate traffic are run by a private operator — Australia-based Transurban.

Brown talked about some of the details of that deal.

“The way it's structured, the state has to pay the operator if the state builds any projects that are proven to divert any traffic away from the I-95 express lanes," Brown said. "We tried to quantify the monetary impact of that. But nobody had a great guess, and everyone said it would be really big.”

Brown noted it would be up to Transurban to initiate any legal fight over contract violations. Recent reporting shows in March the company threatened the government of New South Wales in the company’s home country of Australia after a shakeup of local toll contracts.

The cost owed to Transurban for ripping up the existing contract has yet to be released, but after reportedly raking in about $1 billion a year under the old terms, they told the Financial Review they will “need to be compensated for any lost future income if toll fare structures are changed.”

Attempts to reach Transurban’s U.S. headquarters for comment were not returned.

In an emailed statement, Transurban spokesperson Jacqueline Woodbridge told Radio IQ the company "will always honor its commitments to its government partners, and we are dedicated to improving mobility in the communities we serve.”

"We look forward to any conversation that improves transportation in Northern Virginia and are always looking for innovative solutions to further ease traffic congestion along the corridor,” Woodbridge added.

And McPike may not be swayed by big dollar signs or future litigation.

"One thing we know is big is the 1.2 million hours of lost time," he told Brown. "Long-lasting growth projections still have failing infrastructure that needs to be addressed by Virginia and it's got to be addressed soon or we'll be decades behind."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: June 6, 2024 at 5:09 PM EDT
This story was updated with comment from Transurban North America.
Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.