In Latest Twist for Commuters, Dynamic Tolling to Take Effect

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

The year-end agreement to build Capital Beltway toll lanes in Fairfax County includes a single bureaucratic phrase that will shape the daily lives of thousands of Washington area commuters: dynamic tolling.

It sets prices based on how many cars are on the road. And, as the agreement between the Virginia Department of Transportation and the private companies that will build and operate the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes noted last month, "There shall be no restrictions upon toll rates."

State officials point to detailed traffic models and projections showing that the average rush-hour trip along the new toll lanes will be six miles and cost $5 to $6. But the market will be the final arbiter.

"The upper limits will really be set by people's choice," said Barbara Reese, Virginia's deputy secretary of transportation.

Reese said it would be counterproductive for the two companies behind the project, Fluor Enterprises and Transurban, to ratchet up prices too aggressively. Comparable projects in the United States, including in California, bear that out, she said. The maximum toll on the 91 Express Lanes, which run 10 miles along the Riverside Freeway in Southern California, is $10 for cars eastbound on Fridays at 3 p.m., according to the latest toll schedule.

"I think we can trust the public to tell them what's going to be the appropriate rate that they are going to be willing to pay to use the road," Reese said. She added that cars with three or more occupants and public buses will travel free.

The idea behind "congestion pricing" is logical enough: The private companies are accepting what Transurban's executive vice president, Michael Kulper, calls a "significant risk" in financing the $1.9 billion project, and they expect a healthy profit.

But the effort will add a complex new calculation to daily commutes. Signs will be posted ahead of entrances to the HOT lanes telling commuters how much taking the toll lanes, two in each direction, will cost at the moment. If it's too expensive, drivers can take the free lanes. If they're in a hurry, they can pay. The posted toll could change every few minutes, but once drivers enter, their rate is locked in, and the amount is calculated when they exit. They are charged electronically when they leave the road.

State officials, who are contributing $409 million in construction costs, say such choices reflect the dual realities of limited resources and growing congestion.

The Beltway project will stretch 14 miles, from Springfield at the Mixing Bowl north to Old Dominion Road. In addition to the four new lanes, major improvements will be made at key points, including the Springfield interchange. Because the volume of traffic has increased faster than projected, four access points will connect the HOT lanes to the Tysons Corner area.

The 80-year agreement between VDOT and the companies includes measures that could kick in if profits are especially high or if traffic projections miss their mark. For example, VDOT would get a percentage of revenue collected by Fluor and Transurban if the companies' return on investment is greater than about 8 percent.

Current projections show that that could occur in the last 10 or 15 years of the agreement, Reese said. Any such funds would be used for projects that would benefit HOT lane users, officials said.

Conversely, if more than 24 percent of traffic on the toll lanes is made up of carpools and public transit, which would keep the companies' revenue down, VDOT must compensate them. Officials said that would be unlikely, based on experience locally and nationally.

The agreement also mandates that traffic on the toll lanes be "free flowing," Reese said, which generally means traveling at least 45 mph. The companies would regulate that with price increases or, if necessary, by preventing vehicles from entering the toll lanes, she said.

Crashes are another factor. "If there's an accident on the general-purpose lanes that stops traffic, the agreement requires that they have to open their lanes to traffic, at no cost," Reese said.

Construction on the project is scheduled to begin this spring.

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