Bill Limits Dulles Greenway Toll Hikes

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tolls on the Dulles Greenway may keep going up, but state lawmakers say they have taken action to keep the cost of driving on the 14-mile highway from spinning out of control.

The General Assembly voted unanimously March 8 to require more scrutiny of Toll Road Investors Partnership II, the private company that owns the Greenway, which connects Dulles International Airport to Leesburg. In addition, the legislature agreed to place new limits on Greenway toll increases.

Under the bill, which as of Friday afternoon was awaiting the governor's signature, TRIP II would be permitted to raise the toll at about the rate of inflation, said Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun), who worked on the legislation with Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun). But the change would not take effect until 2013.

The reason for the delay is that the State Corporation Commission, which must sign off on toll increases on the Greenway, gave the company permission in September to gradually increase the one-way fare for a regular passenger car from $3 to a maximum of $4.80 by 2012. Lawmakers cannot reverse that decision, Herring said.

The savings for drivers will be significant in the long term, he said. According to his calculations, by 2020, under the new rules, the toll will be about $1.25 less per trip than if it had continued to rise at the current rate.

"The goal was to keep toll rates as reasonable as possible for users of the Greenway, recognizing that the decision to allow a private company to run a toll road was made years ago and we can't change it," Herring said.

Whitt Clement, a lawyer who lobbied on behalf of TRIP II in Richmond this year, said the company is uneasy with the legislation. Virginia has failed to invest in transportation, he said, and the company stepped in to fill the need without asking for state money.

Moreover, he said, the change is troubling because it alters a business agreement between the state and a private company.

"Our concern is that the General Assembly has to be very careful changing the laws dealing with private investments in Virginia because of the risk that it will send a negative signal to the private sector that the commonwealth can't be trusted to keep a deal," said Clement, a former Virginia secretary of transportation.

The formula linked to the Consumer Price Index and some other variables would replace a system in which the SCC was required to approve TRIP II's requests for toll increases as long as the company met three conditions: that the increase would not significantly discourage drivers from using the road; that the company would not make an undue profit from the higher charge; and that the cost of using the road would not exceed the benefit.

The old criteria would come back into play, however, if the company showed that it could not make its debt payments. Without that safety valve, the bill would have been "a deal-breaker," Clement said. In addition, the new system will expire in seven years so that the General Assembly and the company can assess how it worked.

The bill also requires TRIP II to produce annual financial reports for the state, including information about companies that have contracts to do construction, maintenance or other work on the Greenway. The company would be barred from increasing tolls because of a change in ownership and from using loan proceeds to pay investors.

As part of the negotiations over the bill, lawmakers decided to ditch a proposal by May that would have capped the amount of property taxes paid by the Greenway's owner, an idea opposed by Loudoun County officials.

However, May said officials with the county and TRIP II have agreed orally that "we would work out within a year what is a mutually acceptable tax rate."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company