Two airport committees support Dulles Toll Road hike

The plan would boost tolls by 2012 from 75 cents to $1.50 at the main plaza.
The plan would boost tolls by 2012 from 75 cents to $1.50 at the main plaza. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

A proposal to increase rates on the Dulles Toll Road cleared another hurdle Wednesday.

Two committees of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board met jointly and voted unanimously to recommend the plan, sending it to the full board for a vote Nov. 4.

The plan would boost tolls by 2012 from 75 cents to $1.50 at the main plaza and from 50 to 75 cents at ramps. The airports authority is using toll revenue to help finance the $5 billion project to extend Metrorail service to Dulles International Airport.

The eight-lane, 14-mile toll road runs between Interstate 66 near the West Falls Church Metro station and the airport.

The committee vote came days after the board released a summary of 221 public comments in which respondents expressed disapproval of the increase by about 3 to 1. At the meeting, board members thanked the public for their comments, but they showed no sign of wavering.

"It's obvious where this decision is headed," said David G. Speck, a board member who represents Virginia. "I don't think anyone is going around high-fiving that we are going to be charging more."

But Speck urged board members to keep their eyes on the "overarching element" -- Metrorail to Dulles.

"It's always about rail to Dulles and beyond," Speck said. "We realize the only way to make rail a reality in a timely fashion, at the least expense to taxpayers, is to structure this kind of plan. I think inevitably it's the only plan that will ever work."

In the public submissions, commuters said the toll increase would make the road too expensive to use on a regular basis. Toll road users called the rail line a boondoggle that would unfairly burden working people.

Toll road users also demanded that other people in the region pick up more of the tab. To that end, they pointed to Metro riders, residents of Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the airports authority itself, which is kicking in 4.1 percent of the subway construction cost through airline passenger fees.

In the discussion period before the vote, Phil Sunderland, the authority's general counsel, rebutted complaints. He said two decades of Virginia policy allowed toll road revenue to be used for transportation improvements in the Dulles corridor. Furthermore, he said, toll road revenue has been part of the financial plan for the rail project all along.

"At the end of the day, we all need to be clear that we have an obligation to build the Metrorail project," Sunderland said. "Part of our job is to finance the construction."

Sunderland said the board might consider some of the suggestions from the public, such as congestion pricing -- charging more for tolls during peak travel hours.

He said the board would also look at the possibility of adding tolls at ramps along the highway where there are no booths now.

"We found the comments were very well thought out and useful," Sunderland said.

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