By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007
Every day, Alice Amos of Ashburn says, she has a choice to make before she drives to her job in Reston: Will she buy lunch or take the Dulles Greenway?
Lately, however, the Sprint employee says, it's not much of a choice at all.
"I brown-bag my lunch," she said.
With tolls set to rise today on the privately owned 14-mile extension of the Dulles Toll Road that connects Dulles International Airport to Leesburg, many Loudoun residents will find themselves making similar calculations. Since the road opened in 1995 as a luxury alternative to routes 7 and 28, Loudoun's population has nearly tripled, making the stop-and-go traffic on the free roads unbearable for many and making the Greenway no longer a mere luxury, but a fact of life.
People are forced into using the Greenway, said Bill Irwin, a resident of the Broadlands community -- one of several developments that line the Greenway -- who commutes to Tysons Corner daily. "Otherwise, you're forced into major traffic."
Donald S. Beyer Jr. sat on the Commonwealth Transportation Board in the late 1980s as the state considered the unprecedented idea of allowing a private company to build and operate a for-profit state highway. Beyer agreed that the Greenway is an essential piece of the Washington region. "I don't see how the county could have developed as it has without it, and it certainly couldn't function now without it," Beyer said. "It's perhaps the primary artery of Loudoun County."
Beyer and other former officials said the state considered the privately funded road an irresistible bargain. "One of Virginia's most expensive transportation improvements was done at virtually no cost to the taxpayer and in a much more accelerated time frame," he said.
But many residents say they have not gotten off so cheaply.
Today, the road's owners, Toll Road Investors Partnership II (TRIP II), will raise the one-way toll for two-axle vehicles from $2.70 to $3 on weekdays, the latest in a series of increases in the road's relatively brief history. When the road opened, the toll was $1.75.
In addition, TRIP II is awaiting approval by the State Corporation Commission to further raise the toll ceiling over the next five years. If approved, a one-way rush hour trip could cost $4.80 by 2012. A spokesman for TRIP II cited "increased costs in operations and maintenance" as the reason for toll increases. Such increases have predictably been met with complaints from residents, who have dubbed the road -- which has yet to deliver a profit to its owners -- "The Greedway."
But coupled with the indispensable nature of the highway, toll increases have made some commuters feel trapped. Rush-hour traffic on Route 7 is so bad that drivers save more than $7 a trip in time, gas and vehicle wear and tear by taking the Greenway instead, according to an analysis by TRIP II sent to state regulators.
"One day last week, I came home using the back roads through Herndon, and my normal half-hour commute took me an hour and 10 minutes," Amos said.
Use of the Greenway has grown with Loudoun. In 1996, about 6.3 million vehicles traveled the highway. Last year, nearly 21 million cars and trucks used it. But TRIP II has operated at a loss since the road opened, despite projections that it would be profitable by 2003. Its debt has nearly tripled, to more than $900 million.
To some officials, creating a privately owned highway is bad policy because it amounts to a non-public tax on an essential service.
"You don't privatize the fire department, do you?" said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has opposed Greenway toll increases but, as a federal official, is not empowered to derail them.
"If a mom wants to drop somebody off at a Little League game or a soccer game, it's sort of the road of that area," Wolf said. "Even on a Saturday morning, you're back and forth on that road constantly."
Perhaps the only real choice left, some residents said, is one based on principle, not economics.
Jimmy Gleason, 45, a technology worker at Verizon, said he and his wife, Maryann, a program planner for SAIC, began rising a little earlier each day to avoid the Greenway after the last toll increase, in 2006.
Although it takes longer to use only local roads to drop their 1-year-old at day care and commute to Tysons Corner, they prefer their new routine to paying tolls.
"It's just the principle," Gleason said. "I'd rather spend a little more on gas and drive around."