Tolls as high as $47.25 one way on the new 66 Express Lanes have outraged commuters and captured national headlines in recent weeks. Now, some Virginia lawmakers want to take the program a step further — literally, across the highway median — and toll drivers going against rush-hour traffic.
The toll system between the Capital Beltway and the District line is in effect only during rush hour and in the peak direction lanes: eastbound in the morning and westbound in the afternoon. Some lawmakers say tolling only those commuters traveling in the peak-direction lanes isn’t fair, so they want tolling on both sides of the road.
“If you are going in town, you pay that $47 toll sometimes. And when you go home at night, you pay a toll again. But if you live in Arlington, D.C. or Maryland, and you are going to Tysons Corner or west, you pay no toll in the morning and you get a free ride home,” Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), chairman of the state House Republican Caucus, said Thursday on the House floor, urging his colleagues to support a measure requiring the change.
“We will even it out by getting some people in Arlington to pick up the freight,” Hugo said.
The House passed a budget amendment last week that would require the state to implement rush-hour tolls in both directions by 2020. The proposal is not included in the Senate budget bill. Its fate will be hashed out in a budget agreement in conference committee.
The proposal is one of several legislative attempts to overhaul the Interstate 66 tolls as the system wraps up its third month of operation. A proposal requiring the state to reevaluate the algorithm used to determine the tolls also is advancing. Other measures, including one that sought to restore old rush-hour periods in the corridor and another that would have refunded drivers who racked up more than $200 in tolls in a month, died in committee.
Of all the House proposals, tolling reverse commuters is likely to face the most opposition. The original I-66 toll plan included tolls in both directions, but the reverse-commute toll was dropped as part of a compromise based on feedback from the community, Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said.
“We will have to see where the [General Assembly] ends up, and if ultimately this is something they direct us to do, we will start doing analysis and public outreach to figure out how to move forward,” he said.
The measure approved by the House directs the state Department of Transportation to implement reverse-commute tolling once a widening project from the Dulles Connector Road to Fairfax Drive is completed. Construction on that project began this year, and the additional eastbound lane is scheduled to open in the fall of 2020.
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said tolling traffic in the non-rush-hour lanes would be a tough sell to road users because there are no existing restrictions in the lanes, such as high-occupancy requirements like those that existed in the peak-direction lanes before tolling launched.
“Enough is enough,” Simon said. “We pay high enough tolls in the peak direction. Let’s not add these enormous tolls to folks driving the other way to stop using a road they can already use for free.”
Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), who opposes tolling, said she has received many complaints since the toll system launched Dec. 4. Implementing reverse-commute tolling would ignite more outrage and problems, she said.
“That is going to cause more bailout traffic to our secondary roads. It is going to cost more bailout traffic to people who simply do not want to have to pay another toll on I-66,” she said.
Despite the complaints and attention-grabbing headlines, Virginia transportation officials say the state’s latest experiment with tolls is working as intended.
Users of the interstate are getting to their destinations faster and spending less time in traffic — traveling congestion-free for the 10 miles of toll lanes.
“What we are seeing is continued, reliable and faster trips — a significant improvement to what was taking place prior to the implementation of the project,” Donohue said.
The tolls are calculated every six minutes and change according to demand and traffic volume to maintain an average speed of 55 mph — the highway’s posted speed limit. During morning commutes in January, speeds averaged 54.1 mph, according to state data. That is an improvement from an average speed of 42 mph the previous year. Motorists are saving nearly four minutes in travel time during the morning commute and three during the evening commute, according to the data.
The consistent speeds also have enabled commuter buses to run on time and commuters who carpool to have more reliable trips, state officials said. Carpoolers and buses travel free in the lanes.
Officials say more time and analysis are needed to understand shifts in traffic patterns. Anecdotally, they cite higher use of transit services and carpooling. A bus line from Fairfax to Foggy Bottom, for example, has had robust ridership since launching, Donohue said, and there is indication of higher use of park-and-ride lots.
Neighbors and motorists have complained about spillover traffic into neighborhoods and alternate roads such as Routes 7, 29 and 50 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, creating more congestion. Thus far, however, data collected by the state have not shown that; some of the roads have seen heavier traffic but not necessarily slower speeds and delays, officials said.
The variable tolling system allows solo drivers willing to pay to use the lanes, and many are doing so. On average, nearly 13,000 vehicles use the system during a morning commute heading to downtown Washington, and more than 15,000 use it westbound in the evening, according to January usage data. Nearly 45 percent of the users paid a toll, the data show. Another 43 percent were carpoolers.
Motorists paid an average toll of $12.37 per round trip in January, with those who traveled the entire 10 miles paying more, at $18.06.
Some experts say the tolls are reasonable and less than what New Jersey commuters pay to drive into Manhattan during rush hour, given the $15 toll at the Hudson River crossing.
But at the height of the commute, when travel is heavier, some drivers have paid much higher tolls. In January, 461 vehicles were charged $40 or more to travel the 10 miles of roadway. Those accounted for less than 1 percent of all trips, according to the state data.
“The thing that gets the most attention is the super-high tolls. The $40-plus tolls. But clearly this shows that very few people are paying that toll,” said Robert Puentes, president of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation.
The data, he said, begins to paint a picture of the cost of commuting in the region and what drivers are willing to pay for a guaranteed delay-free trip through one of the densest corridors at the most congested times.
“It is expensive,” Puentes said.
Still, not all commuters and elected officials are convinced.
The House proposal that passed last week directing state transportation officials to reevaluate the algorithm used to set the tolls is in response to complaints from motorists.
Transportation officials have said that they are willing to revisit the algorithm and explore adjustments. But they also said they want to give the system time before considering changes that might lower tolls and attract more solo drivers.
For example, the state could lower the target speed to 50 mph, keeping traffic moving briskly but allowing more cars into the system. Lowering the target speed could potentially lower the tolls.
The budget amendment requires the evaluation to be completed and any changes to be implemented by July 1.