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Partnership to Reimagine Virginia's I-66 Thoroughfare With Tech

Interstate 66 in northern Virginia will be operated through a public-private partnership, deploying the latest in technology to enable dynamic tolling lanes and real-time traffic management for a range of mobility users.

A highway project in Virginia is taking on the future, not only in technology, but making the business case for public-private partnership roadways.

Interstate 66 in northern Virginia, a key thoroughfare for commuters traveling into the Washington, D.C., metro region, is being redeveloped as a multimodal expressway, managed with real-time traffic data — displayed on highway message boards and inside connected vehicles — as well as dynamic tolling lanes that offer drivers options along the always-shifting spectrum of speed and efficiency, and cost.

“We will be communicating, in real time, the state of all of those on and off ramps … to every vehicle that can receive them, and providing that information to the control center, and providing that information to the relevant message boards on the highway,” said Adrian Talbot, who heads the Centre of Excellence for Mobility and Digital Infrastructure at Ferrovial, the transportation technology company involved in the Transform 66 Outside the Beltway project.

The 22.5-mile stretch of highway will use a network of cameras and lidar sensor devices on ramps and other areas to monitor the traffic flow along the roadway, designed to serve not only tolling lanes — which Ferrovial calls “managed lanes” — but also traffic management technology to give preference for transit and emergency vehicles. The project also includes protected multi-use paths for cyclists and park-and-ride lots equipped with electric vehicle chargers.

The $3.6 billion project began in 2017, with the new express lanes set to open in December. I-66 Express Mobility Partners Holdings LLC, set up by Ferrovial, operates as the private entity working with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to design, develop and manage the roadway. VDOT could not immediately be reached for comment on the project. A key funding source for the project will be the revenue-generating toll lanes. However, the road also includes free general use lanes, which are not part of the tolling network.

“I think the benefits of public-private partnerships come in many shapes and forms. Obviously, one of them is the lack of pressure on the public purse through the deployment of private funding,” said Talbot, as he went on to highlight the mutual benefits of bringing a global technology perspective to a local roadway project, whose design is informed by local stakeholders and transportation needs.

The outcome, he added, “is going to provide a much more balanced and beneficial solution for the long run.”

Privately operated roads — which are generally toll roads — are not new. However they are often offered as champions of technology aimed at improving efficiency and safety. Texas State Highway 130 is an example of a privately owned expressway connecting Austin with San Antonio. It has the highest posted speed in the nation at 85 mph.

Transportation thought leaders say today’s infrastructure must be planned for emerging technology like connected vehicles or EVs, and with an eye toward helping highways operate more efficiently.

“And if we have technology that’s really effective, just think what we can do with the algorithms that give you less congestion. You can actually have, if the technology is working well, vehicles going faster, operating closer together,” speculated Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer for Zoox, in an interview with Government Technology in April. “So it’s not to increase congestion. That’s to manage the congestion even better.”

Allie Kelly, executive director of The Ray, a transportation technology innovation testbed in Georgia, sees roadways as energy generators, deploying solar installations in right of ways as well as vehicle charging innovations like in-road charging.

“This kind of solar-powered EV charging and solar-powered hydrogen hubs are probably going to be pretty common for us in the 2050 horizon,” said Kelly in a recent interview.

These are the kinds of advancements Ferrovial is already envisioning for the I-66 project, with in-pavement charging being a possibility in a decade or two when pavement needs to be rehabbed or replaced.

“This is probably maybe 10, 12 or 15 years away. That is a good opportunity for target for some of those longer-term upgrades,” said Talbot. “If we could deploy in-road charging that gives a lot of convenience back to the road users. But that is more longer term.”

Editor's note: The project cost reported in an earlier version of this story has been updated to reflect new estimates. Earlier projections put the project at $2.3 billion.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.