Richmond VA airport gets connector to VA895 Pocahontas pike

January 7, 2011

Thursday Feb 13 Transurban is planning to open a neat $40m spur off their VA895 Pocahontas Parkway providing a direct highspeed connection to Richmond Airport and surrounding industry and hotels. The project involves a new interchange just south of the airport and 1.6 miles (2300m) 2x2 lane expressway with bridges over local streets and a rail line.

The west facing ramps for traffic not using the mainline toll plaza will be tolled - transponder plus credit card payment, no cash.

Tolls at the Connector ramp toll points will be $1.25 for cars, the same as the existing east facing ramps at the Laburnum Av interchange. Mainline plaza tolls are $3.00 for cars.

Rich Prezioso, a project manager for Transurban told us the design-build contract for the Airport Connector with American Infrastructure has gone extremely well. The project is right on budget, with a perfect safety record and will open in 22 months versus the 24 months allowed by contract.

The project will improve travel times for existing traffic between the Airport area to the east and Chesterfield County in the southwestern parts of the metro area. It will eliminate several miles on local streets and at-grade intersections for traffic that enters and exits a few miles southwest of the airport at the existing Laburnum Av interchange.

The new Airport Connector will attract some new traffic because it will provide more direct and faster trips between the east (I-295) and the Airport area, Prezioso says.

But apparently they aren't expecting any major increases in traffic near-term with the local economy flat.

Rather, it seems, the Parkway with the Connector will improve connections such that, if and when regional growth resumes, the area will be more attractive for development. The Airport area is already partially developed with light industry including a major Nabisco foods factory, Hilex Poly plastic bag manufacturing, a couple of print works, trucking yards, cold storage for foods and such. It also has a collection of automobile servicing and rental car places, and hotels.

I-64 is still the expressway route of preference for trips between Richmond's central business district and the Airport. The Richmond metro area with a population of 1.21m supports heavily trafficked radial routes, but in a metro area of such modest size fringe area routes like VA895 are liable to generate modest traffic volumes - especially when there is a toll while competing routes are tax supported, hence free to use.

Slight traffic

The Pocahontas Parkway been running traffic in the range 12k to 18k/day since it opened and has seen declines in the big recession since 2007.

The Pocahontas Parkway is by far Transurban's smallest and weakest toll operation, but it's a very small part of the whole.

It was acquired by Transurban from a failing not-for-profit Pocahontas Parkway Association. The pike had opened in Sept 2002 as an 8.8 mile, 14km east-west link across the southern part of the Richmond metro area, its major feature being an interchange with I-95 and a twin span 2x 3 lanes high-level bridge, of cast-in-place concrete arch design 145ft or 44m high over the "shipping channel" of the James River.

On the east side of the river it has a mainline toll plaza with open road tolling for transponder users and cash collection to the sides. As built it had only one intermediate interchange at Laburnum Avenue, a trumpet design with tolls (transponder and credit card payment, no cash) on  east facing ramps.

Project cost for the original Parkway as built by the Association was around $350m. Facing bankruptcy from the debt burden and low traffic the Association and the state took up an offer of $611m from Transurban for a 99 year concession in May 2006.

VA895's FY2010 toll revenue was $13.8m A$15.7m, a drop on FY2009 with traffic down 6%. The tollroad pays for its operating costs of A$8m but little more. Tolls from the VA895 represented 2% of total Transurban tolls.

Overall Transurban revenue from five tollroads in Sydney and one big one in Melbourne Australia was A$751m in FY2010, about US$700m, with EBIDTA of A$527m around US$480m. The company's biggest single asset is Melbourne CityLink, an eleven year old all-electronic 22km long (14 miles) inner area tollroad in Australia's second city. CityLink has toll revenues of $375m/yr.

US investments

The company attributes the poor VA895 result to the weak local economy in central Virginia.

The company's biggest US investments are 'up the road' (I-95) from Richmond in northern Virginia where the company is heavily into construction of four toll lanes on the Capital Beltway (I-495) between between the Springfield interchange and Tysons Corner - at a cost of $1.6b.

A concession to build toll lanes between the Pentagon and Fredericksburg on I-395 (Shirley Hwy) and I-95 is in place but implementation is tied up by litigation between Arlington County (CORRECTION) and VDOT over permitting.

COMMENT: The Richmond Airport Connector is a useful addition to the Parkway project which suffers from foolish initial planning a decade ago. The huge expensive high twin span bridge was quite unjustified.

The so-called Port of Richmond located to its immediate north is a tiny operation with a single shipping berth and 25ft of water. Handling mostly barges it did less than $1m of business last year. It is much too far from the open sea to be a serious port.

A sensible toll bridge operation would have bought up this toy port, closed it, and built a single simple girder bridge of 2+2 lanes above flood level at a small fraction of the cost of the huge high twin span 2x3 lane structure the project was saddled with by the original Parkway Association.

UPDATE: Opening of the Airport Connector to motorists is postponed to Friday morning January 14. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was at 11am Thursday Jan 13, as planned.

TOLLROADSnews 2011-01-06 UPDATE 2011-01-13

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