Virginia will adjust the pricing algorithm on the 66 Express Lanes in an effort to lower tolls that have stunned commuters and some elected officials by topping $40 more than a dozen times since the lanes opened.
Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said Monday that the state will test various options, including lowering the target travel speed from 55 mph to allow more cars to enter the lanes and possibly bring down toll prices. 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.
However, Valentine said there is no guarantee that the adjustments will lead to lower tolls in the long term.
“Our goal and commitment is to move more people at a lower cost,” Valentine said. “But there is really no one solution.”
The agency also plans to increase outreach to commuters and promote carpooling and alternative routes for solo drivers unwilling to pay the tolls on this stretch of Interstate 66. Any changes to the toll system will be made to maintain steady speeds in the corridor and to guarantee carpoolers and bus riders a reliable trip, Valentine said.
The rush-hour, peak-direction toll system between the Capital Beltway and the District line debuted Dec. 4, with rates reaching as high as $40 that first week and igniting outrage among Northern Virginia commuters. There is no cap on the toll pricing, which means that the tolls increase as congestion rises and decrease as congestion eases; they have gone as high as $47.50.
Tolls are in effect weekdays from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 to 7 p.m. westbound.
The system has drawn national attention, trending on social media and prompting heated discussions at local transportation panels and in the Virginia General Assembly. Some elected officials called on the commonwealth to lower, cap or drop the tolls altogether.
Transportation officials have insisted that the system is working as intended, giving solo drivers the option to pay to use the roadway while giving carpoolers and bus riders smoother rides and more consistent speeds.
“The public has gone through so much pain over these new tolls,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run), who tried unsuccessfully to lower the tolls through a resolution in the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
“You talk to anyone in the area that drives and they can’t believe the tolls,” he said.
Meyer said adjusting the pricing algorithm to lower the toll rates “is the least they can do.”
The commission weighed the resolution seeking to suspend the tolls but opted to give the state more time to evaluate the system and its effect on transit patterns.
The General Assembly approved a proposal within the state budget to require that the algorithm be revisited in response to complaints from motorists. Other attempts to overhaul the system, including a measure that sought to restore the previous rush-hour periods in the corridor and another that would have refunded drivers who racked up more than $200 in tolls in a month, didn’t make it out of committee.
Since the first day, when tolls peaked at $34.50, prices to travel the 10-mile stretch have drawn complaints from drivers. Tolls have topped $30 at least 27 times and surpassed $40 on 14 occasions, including hitting a record $47.50 the morning of Feb. 28, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Commuters say the tolls, among the highest in the nation, have disrupted their travels. Many motorists and neighborhood residents say the tolls also have pushed more traffic onto other roads, simply shifting the congestion to areas off of I-66. Others have complained that transit isn’t a viable option for the outer suburbs of Loudoun and Prince William County, where bus service is limited and there is no Metro.
State officials say their data does not show an increase of traffic on arterials.
“We have so many commuters who expressed that inaction is not an option,” said Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William), who opposes the tolls and spoke from the House floor about the impact they have had on commuters, including many who are hourly workers and can’t afford to pay the high rates to get to work.
Moving forward, toll critics say they want the state to return to the previous HOV hours, which were expanded from 2.5 hours in the morning and evening to four hours. Transportation officials have dismissed that idea.
“Finding a way to lower the tolls, hopefully substantially, is at least a good first step for easing the burden on the commuters in Northern Virginia,” Roem said.
Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said the state has been collecting data, analyzing changes to travel patterns and is finally in a position to make adjustments. He said the state will look at potential adjustments by examining when is the road most congested, history of usage, and possibly ways to encourage users to travel outside the busiest time: 8:30 to 9 a.m.
The changes, first reported by WTOP, will be in full force this summer.
Though the high tolls have captured the most attention, commuters in March were paying an average of $12.65 round-trip. During those morning commutes, speeds averaged 53.2 mph, according to state data. That is an improvement from an average speed of 43.6 mph the previous year. Motorists saved about three minutes in travel time during the morning and evening commute, according to the data.
Donohue said the state will test lowering the target speed but didn’t say what the new target would be. By law, the target can’t be lower than 45 mph.
Drivers with one or more passengers can ride free in the lanes as long as they have an EZ-Pass transponder set to carpool mode. All other drivers, except motorcyclists, pay a toll.
The roadway previously was limited to high-occupancy vehicles during rush hours. But then those hours expanded when the toll lanes opened, affecting thousands of solo commuters who used I-66.
Valentine said the changes to the toll system are the next step in continuing improvements in the corridor.
“The intention was to see if we could improve travel time, move people, improve carpooling, increase transit; and if you look at all those factors, yes, performance has improved,” she said. “The steps that we took have created much better mobility for the corridor. Now at six months the question is, ‘How can we do a better job?’ ”