It’s a contract that covers 219 pages. Is that a lot or a little?
I’m not sure, but given that it covers the construction and operation of the Interstate 95/395 HOT lanes, that sounds about right.
As contracts go it’s also unusually readable. That’s why all of the clauses that could severely restrict the commonwealth’s ability to modify, expand or improve the I-95 main lanes, U.S. 1 or the Occoquan Bridge are so easy to see.
It’s not the lack of a cap on tolls that bothers me. Or even the amount the commonwealth has to pay, above a certain threshold, for each high occupancy vehicle that uses the lanes.
The big surprise is a thing called a “compensation event.” Several of which can be activated when we make improvements to our own roads.
No doubt, when the Transurban firm negotiated this contract, one of their concerns was guaranteeing that demand would stay stable or increase in years to come.
But it seems the commonwealth, in negotiating this one, gave away a little too much.
In 2017, Prince William County Supervisor Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, proposed a project to deal with one of the region’s most notorious bottlenecks. It’s near Occoquan where the main lanes go from four to three.
Given the massive volume of traffic on this part of I-95, a fix sounded like a good idea. Anderson proposed a new lane to cover four miles. It would be a godsend for commuters.
But the Commonwealth Transportation Board didn’t give it the time of day.
Apparently, their concern was that this extra lane might activate the “compensation event” clause of the HOT lanes contract.
In other words, Virginia would have to offset any lost revenues sustained by Transurban, had the extra lane not been built.
Right now, Anderson is trying to get money from the state to shore up an existing shoulder of I-95 to create an extra lane. Though, it’s not clear that this gets around the possible and now rather scary sounding, “compensation event.”
I am thinking of the theme from “Jaws” as I write this. That compensation event is out there somewhere.
But let’s back up a little. The process for adding a lane to I-95 and possibly triggering the need for regular payments to Transurban is a two-pronged affair.
First, when the commonwealth proposes an extra lane, Transurban, under the terms of the contract, has the right to compete to build another pay lane.
If they don’t take up that option, they’re entitled to compensation for lost revenue when a new lane is built.
This also applies to improvements to U.S. 1 — even though it’s a separate highway and at times is a considerable distance from I-95.
However, it’s the only alternative north-south route available to travelers and commuters. If it were expanded or improved — luring drivers away from Transurban’s domain — the state, under the contract, might have to pay compensation.
Now, a quick look farther south. Transurban is expanding its Stafford lanes in a 10-mile-long extension from Garrisonville at Va. 610 to Falmouth at U.S. 17.
VDOT and Stafford would like to see a new lane along this route. The problem is that, unless Virginia somehow manages to get Transurban to change its contract — which some have asked for — a “compensation event” might kick-in.
The concern over this prospect, which the commonwealth apparently cheerfully accepted as a part of the contract, has already put a chill on improvements to I-95’s main lanes.
That’s a cost that the commonwealth’s transportation planners didn’t consider.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.