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By Dawn Klavon
By now you’ve probably seen it, perhaps even driven it a few times. Approaching the Route 29 interchange in Gainesville, the lanes of eastbound Interstate 66 split into two managed-toll express lanes alongside three general-purpose lanes, giving Prince William’s commuters and businesses a valuable choice for traveling to Fairfax County and the Capital Beltway. The new five-lane arrangement is duplicated over on the westbound side, too.
So begins the 66 Express Outside the Beltway, a $3.7 billion multi-modal mega-project featuring 22.5 miles of smooth, newly built roadway and a host of infrastructure improvements. Those improvements include dedicated access ramps, 12 rebuilt or modified interchanges with safety and operational improvements, new and expanded OmniRide bus service, and two park-and-ride facilities in Prince William County totaling more than 4,000 spaces.
An integral part of the Transform 66 initiative spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the 66 Express Outside the Beltway represents the nation’s largest surface transportation project and is among the largest multi-modal mega-projects constructed in the United States this century.
“We’re unlocking this major corridor from the gridlock of congestion and giving drivers a predictable, consistent, reliable trip on I-66 every day,” said Luis Vazquez, MBA, MSCE, and CEO of I-66 Express Mobility Partners (EMP), which operates the 66 Express Outside the Beltway. “Because the lanes offer significant time-savings, we believe this is a tremendous investment to keep Prince William County moving today and for many years into the future.”
Prince William County BOCS Chair At-Large Ann B. Wheeler was among the dignitaries to speak at the express lanes’ official opening ceremony on Nov. 29, 2022.
“It’s not a secret that those of us out of Prince William County have been plagued with some of the worst commutes for decades going into D.C.,” Wheeler told the assemblage of reporters, elected officials, transportation officials, and local citizens. “This is a game-changer for Prince William County.”
Paid For Exclusively Through Private Investment
But not all drivers are aware that this new travel option on I-66 – along with the two local park-and-ride lots, the 12 new interchanges, and additional recent improvements – was financed, designed, and constructed exclusively through private investment.
The private entity is I-66 EMP, a consortium of leading infrastructure companies Cintra, Meridiam Infrastructure, and APG. From a competitive bidding process in 2016, VDOT selected I-66 EMP to enter into a 50-year public/private partnership – known in industry parlance as a P3 agreement – to revamp, maintain, and operate the I-66 corridor west of I-495. That stretch carries an average of approximately 200,000 daily vehicle trips.
I-66 EMP is also contracted to operate and maintain those four express lanes of the corridor’s 22.5 miles – known as the 66 Express Outside the Beltway – and to assume the risk of losses while providing a reliable transportation option west of I-495. VDOT is the sole operator of the I-66 lanes inside the Beltway.
Virginia Governor Glenn A. Youngkin keynoted the opening ceremony of the 66 Express Outside the Beltway, which commenced full service ahead of schedule on Nov. 22, 2022.
“That partnership transferred the responsibility for financing and risk management to the private sector, protecting Virginians’ tax dollars while accelerating the delivery of this critically needed transportation project,” Youngkin said.
Turning Private Investments Into Transportation Improvements
Tasked with the goal of alleviating I-66’s famous – or infamous – congestion in Prince William and Fairfax counties, I-66 EMP designed an innovative segmental-tolling system with rates that vary depending on traffic volumes within a segment. The system is configured to keep traffic moving on the 66 Express Outside the Beltway at all times, even during peak usage.
Of the $3.7 billion in I-66 EMP’s capital investment, $2.3 billion went to design/build costs. The consortium is providing the Commonwealth with $350 million toward future improvements benefiting the corridor, and an additional $800 million in mass-transit subsidy over the 50-year contract. In addition, I-66 EMP’s agreement with VDOT allows both school buses and mass-transit vehicles to use the 66 Express Outside the Beltway for free.
I-66 EMP also made a $579 million concession-fee payment to VDOT, which has been used to fund a variety of transportation infrastructure improvement projects throughout the 22.5-mile corridor, including widening Balls Ford Road and Devlin Road in Manassas.
Furthermore, the Commonwealth offered I-66 EMP a taxpayer-funded subsidy of up to $600 million to defray overall project costs. I-66 EMP did not require such a subsidy, allowing VDOT to invest those tax dollars into other infrastructure improvement projects.
“We’re extremely pleased with the response from local commuters and the business community here in Prince William County,” Vazquez said. “We’re happy to be here, and we’d like the opportunity to expand our operations. Virginia is a great state for business and for companies like ours looking for long-term infrastructure investments.”
Drivers can learn more about the 66 Express Outside the Beltway, including tips on using the lanes, vehicle classifications, and customer service resources, at Ride66Express.com. The new facility also has an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, under the handle @Ride66Express.
Dawn Klavon is a contributing writer for Prince William Living.