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Questioning Private Investment in HOT Lanes

The 495 Express Lanes opened in Virginia in November 2012 and have yet to meet ridership projections. That might not be a problem when built by the public sector, but the road is a $1.4 billion investment by the Australian firm Transurban.
February 28, 2014, 6am PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Build it and they may not come", at least not in the numbers to bring a private company a profit, may be the enduring saga of the 495 Express Lanes. WAMU transportation reporter Martin Di Caro writes that while the 495 Express Lanes (also referred to as the Beltway Express lanes) is showing increased ridership and revenue, it may not satisfy the Transurban's shareholders.

The road lost $51 million in 2013. But Transurban is not deterred. In fact, a Transurban spokesman in the audio version of the article proclaims that "it's an outstanding example of the public-private partnership model working exactly as it is intended to work." The CEO took a similar position.

In a conference call with investors earlier this month, Transurban CEO Scott Charlton defended the firm’s $1.4 billion investment in the $1.9 billion road, according to a report in, an online journal about driving. Charlton is quoted telling investors, “We think there is long term value here, recognizing that this is a 75-year concession period."

Taking a different view is Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based research group.

“Vehicles miles traveled in this country essentially peaked in 2005. We are seeing trends that show diminishing growth in travel by car, and more people are choosing either to forgo driving on congested highways every day for a lifestyle that allows them to walk, take transit or bike.”

“What we’ve seen in the D.C. area over the last decade is an infusion of younger people who are choosing to live in the city for longer periods of time and forgo car ownership for longer periods of time than in previous generations,” Schank added.

However, the region's population growth may just prove the 495 Express Lane's savior.

Tysons Corner is anticipating a large job and population boom over the next several decades, adding potential toll road users. And the 95 Express Lanes [not to be confused with Florida's I-95 Express Lanes], also built by Transurban, are scheduled to open early next year. Schank said the new highway will help feed drivers onto the 495 toll lanes.

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Published on Thursday, February 27, 2014 in WAMU
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