Amy Lambrecht had a choice Tuesday morning: pay a $36 toll to get to work via Interstate 66 or take Metro. She chose Metro’s Orange Line — and reluctantly, for the first time in at least 20 years, she made Metro part of her commute from Manassas to Washington.
“Crying isn’t an option, is it?” Lambrecht joked.
The introduction of rush-hour, peak-direction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes this week on I-66 is forcing thousands of Northern Virginians like Lambrecht to adjust their travel patterns. High tolls are the biggest incentive.
About 8 a.m. Tuesday, an unaccompanied driver entering the interstate at the Capital Beltway paid $36.50 to cover the 10 miles to the D.C. line, topping the peak toll of Monday’s debut commute, which reached $34.50. Minutes later Tuesday morning, the toll reached $40.
“It is an obscene way of making money off those commuters who have to get to work,” said Lambrecht, who commutes to Washington twice a week. “This is the only highway available to me, and now you are charging me $30 or $40 to ride in. I am sorry, I believe that is wrong.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne acknowledged Tuesday that the tolls are higher than many anticipated, but he said that there is nothing unfair about the new system, that it is working as intended. The state’s goal, he said, is to move more people, not more vehicles, through the busy corridor. And, the state is betting that variable tolls are the tool to change commuter behavior.
“No one has to pay a toll,” Layne said.
Motorcycles and vehicles carrying two or more people have free use of the lanes. The shift to HOT lanes gives solo drivers the option to use I-66 during rush hour — if they pay. Before, solo drivers were barred from using the highway during rush hour — with the exception of drivers of hybrid vehicles. But solo hybrid drivers must pay tolls now, too.
Lambrecht is among the estimated 17,000 hybrid drivers who lost the privilege of driving free in the I-66 HOV lanes.
“Those vehicles do just as much wear and tear on our roads,” Layne said.
He said he understands commuters’ being upset that the state extended the rush-hour periods by 90 minutes as part of the toll program. Drivers who used to time their commutes to leave home before 6 a.m. or at 9 a.m. to avoid HOV restrictions no longer have that option. But, Layne said, expanding the hours was intended to benefit all road users. The tolls are in effect from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 to 7 p.m. westbound, Monday through Friday — an expansion of the toll window with an earlier start and a later end.
Several of the region’s lawmakers, however, said that their constituents cannot afford the system and that they plan to seek changes.
Republican members of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission said they will introduce a resolution Thursday calling on state officials to “lower, cap and reconfigure” the tolls and restore the previous rush-hour periods, eliminating the 90-minute expansions of HOV restrictions during mornings and evenings. The new measures, the commission members argue, are unfeasible.
Working “Virginians cannot afford tolls more than $35, $20, or even $10 each way every day,” says the resolution.
The tolls are dynamic — meaning they change according to demand and volume of traffic to maintain an average vehicle speed of 55 mph. The tolls are calculated every six minutes. The posted speed limit on I-66 is 55 mph, and during Monday’s commutes, the average speed was 57 mph consistently. The average speed Tuesday was 54 mph, state officials said.
Layne said the consistent speeds save motorists travel time and enable commuter buses to run punctually.
He said the Virginia Department of Transportation, which operates the lanes, will explore adjustments and will not dismiss the idea of a cap. For example, the state could lower the target speed of 55 mph to 50 mph, keeping traffic moving briskly but allowing more cars into the system. But there are no plans to abandon the system.
Since Monday, commute times have been shorter in the corridor, according to INRIX, a leading traffic data firm. At 9 a.m. in the days and weeks before the toll change, it took drivers just over 20 minutes to commute between the Capital Beltway and U.S. Route 29 in Rosslyn, the firm said.
Monday and Tuesday, analysts found, the same trip took 10 to 12 minutes. The westbound afternoon commute Monday was cut in half to 10 minutes at 3 p.m.
But that speed comes at a price. Regional planners say it is not surprising that the I-66 tolls are high, given the demand in the corridor. I-66 is the only highway connecting that part of the Northern Virginia suburbs to downtown Washington. The alternatives — routes 7, 29 and 50 — take commuters to major roadways with traffic lights and their own congestion. I-66 also is one of the most congested highways in the region, and likely to have higher toll prices than on the express-enabled portions of I-495 and I-95, where drivers have the option to use regular lanes.
“We are expecting that when things settle down, the tolls won’t be around $30,” said Kanti Srikanth, head of the Transportation Planning Board for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “How much it will go down remains to be seen.”
So far, there appears to be minimal spillover onto adjacent state highways and alternative routes into the District, INRIX said.
Routes 7, 123, 193 and the George Washington Parkway appear to have been “largely unaffected,” the firm said. One outlier: westbound Route 50. While it normally takes about 25 minutes to go from the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge to the Beltway, the trip Monday grew to nearly 42 minutes during the 5 p.m. hour, according to the firm. But there were numerous factors, including crashes in the area, that could have made the traffic “not necessarily representative of changes to the HOT lanes,” INRIX said.
Justin Cole paid a one-way toll of $17.25 to get to downtown Washington on Monday. Tuesday morning, as he drove to enter I-66, he saw that the toll was $39. He took another route to work.
Lambrecht said that she could take Route 50 but finds the traffic lights discouraging. She plans to give Metro, and a $16 round trip including parking, a try. If the toll drops below $10 she will go back to I-66, she said.
Officials say transit eventually will become a more attractive option. A portion of the I-66 toll revenue will go to supporting more carpooling and commuter-bus service. The state spent $10 million to improve public transportation in and around the I-66 corridor even before the HOT lane conversion. The effort includes new bus routes that will take commuters from as far away as Gainesville in Prince William County to the Pentagon via I-66, and from Fairfax to Foggy Bottom.
With the opening of the I-66 express lanes, the Washington region has become the premier testing ground for HOT lane projects nationwide, said Rob Puentes, president of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation.
About 45 miles of express lanes have opened on I-95 and I-495 in the past five years, and the state is working toward a network of 90 miles of HOT lanes by 2022, including another 22.5 miles on I-66, outside the Beltway.
"There's nothing like what's going on here in this region, with [interstates] 395, 95, 495, 66 phases and what Governor [Larry] Hogan has planned for Maryland," Puentes said, referring to the Republican governor's proposal for tolled express lanes on three of the state's most congested highways. "This region is emerging as a pioneer and innovator when it comes to using congestion pricing. . . . It's going to have implications far beyond just this region."
He expects growing pains but says the break-in period will be short.
“I think we’ll get used to this very, very quickly,” he said.
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.