This attention-getting chart shows the estimated tolls at peak periods inside the Beltway. (VDOT image)

Maybe you’ve heard the campaign slogan, “Stop $17 tolls on I-66.”

If that has a familiar ring to some of you, there was a “Stop the $17 tolls” campaign in 2011 against the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority plan to raise fees on the Dulles Toll Road. This new one is about the Virginia Department of Transportation plan to create high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

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The chart above began to gain circulation in mid-September. Add VDOT’s estimated peak toll eastbound in the morning with the westbound peak in the afternoon, and you get $17. VDOT plans to put HOT lanes on I-66 for about 35 miles between Rosslyn and Haymarket. The inside the Beltway plan would be unique in the Northern Virginia HOT lanes network, because it wouldn’t add extra lanes to what is now mostly a four-lane HOV2 system.

Here’s how that’s been used in the fall’s campaign for the Nov. 3 General Assembly elections in Virginia.

  • Oct. 19 posting by Loudoun County Republican Jeanine Martin on the Bull Elephant blog: “Governor McAuliffe and the Democrats propose transforming one HOV-2 lane along I-66 into a $17 toll lane. And the tolls won’t be used for road improvements; commuters would pay for bike paths and subsidizing mass transit. People in Loudoun would be paying for bike paths in Arlington and their Metro.”
  • From the campaign Web site of House Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun): “The revenue from this tolling plan isn’t slated to improve I-66 or relieve the massive traffic congestion that Northern Virginia struggles with. Governor McAuliffe’s proposed tolls are going to ‘multimodal transportation’ projects — that means Metro subsidies and bike paths among other things.” The message includes links to Bike Arlington to illustrate “the kind of effort Arlington County goes to to force people onto ‘car diets’ and spend taxpayer money to promote biking!”
  • Manassas Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R), candidate for state Senate in the 29th District, has a 30-second ad in which he says: “The Richmond politicians are at it again. They want us to pay $17 just to drive on I-66 inside the Beltway … Elect me, and we’ll put a stop sign on any new toll on a road that you already paid for.”
  • House Majority Whip Jackson Miller (R-Manassas) said this in an Oct. 1 statement issued by GOP leaders in the General Assembly: “Asking commuters from Prince William, Manassas, Fairfax and Loudoun to pay such an outrageous amount for the privilege of sitting in the same unmoving lanes of traffic so Arlington can have nice new bike paths is unconscionable. Drivers who use both I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road could be stuck with $9,000 per year in fees. Governor McAuliffe’s plan is a nonstarter.”

Questions
There is nothing in the D.C. region’s transportation network that’s as complicated as the HOT lanes. They’re difficult for planners to explain and commuters to understand. And each one is at least a bit different from the others. So they’re a perfect target for political campaigns, where the candidate doesn’t need detail or an alternative that might actually happen.

Here are a few of the issues that have come up during the campaign.


Map shows where drivers who use I-66 inside the Beltway are coming from. (VDOT image)

How would I wind up paying $17 in tolls?
Take the full nine-mile route inside the Beltway at the height of both the morning and afternoon rush hours.

Why would I want to do that?
Beats me. That’s a lot of money. It’s VDOT’s estimate on the maximum toll at the peak of the peak. In this type of tolling, often called “dynamic tolling,” the price for access to the lanes rises when there are enough cars in the lanes to slow traffic below about 45 mph.

What could I do to avoid paying that?
You could just keep doing what you’re doing. The lanes now are HOV2 at peak periods. That means they’re open to a driver with at least one other person in the car. VDOT plans to impose tolling in summer 2017. At that point, any HOV2 carpool — the driver plus at least one other person — could travel free. That would remain true until at least 2020, when Virginia is scheduled to raise its HOV standard to HOV3, meaning there would have to be at least three people in the car to qualify for a free ride in the HOT lanes. The plan to go to HOV3 is independent of the HOT lanes proposal for I-66 and predates it.

How come the toll would be so much less for Arlingtonians heading west?
The political campaign is meant to pit people in the outer suburbs, who tend to vote Republican, against those inside the Beltway, who tend to vote Democratic. So some commuters who look at the toll chart are suspicious about why an Arlingtonian heading west in the morning to, say, a job in Tysons Corner, would pay a much lower toll on I-66. This is not a gubernatorial reward for Democratic voters. In the morning, there’s less traffic heading west than heading east. So the dynamic toll doesn’t have to be as high to ensure free-flowing traffic. It’s the same tolling system used on the Capital Beltway and I-95 in Virginia. For example, during a typical morning rush, the northbound toll on the Beltway is much higher than the toll southbound, because there’s more traffic heading northbound.


Where they’re going: The chart shows estimates on where people using I-66 eastbound inside the Beltway will be traveling to in 2040. (VDOT image)

How are Arlingtonians reacting?
The HOT lanes plan has gotten mixed reviews in Arlington County. People generally like the idea that the interstate would not be widened until planners have a chance to see if the HOT lanes control congestion while expanding the highways’ people-moving capacity. But today’s reverse commuters — like the people heading for jobs in Tysons Corner — don’t have any restrictions on their interstate travel. The HOV rules apply only in the peak direction. So unlike the drivers in the peak direction, the reverse commuters can’t just keep doing what they’re doing to avoid a toll. They would have to get into carpools, ride buses, or travel outside the tolling hours.

But at least they get their bike lanes, right?
A prominent feature of the political attack on the HOT lanes plan is the idea that the toll revenue is going to rob money from hard-working families in the outer suburbs and hand it to Arlington joggers, bikers and Metro riders. The actual plan for the toll revenue is a lot less stimulating. The I-66 tolling plan does allow for support of trails and transit. But it also includes plans for an expansion of carpooling lots and commuter buses beyond the Beltway.

If I pay tolls, why don’t I get more lanes?
This is by far the most frequently asked question among opponents of the HOT lanes plan. There are many issues and side issues. But here’s the bottom line: No government in this region has a plan to widen any highway to the extent needed to guarantee free-flowing traffic at peak periods. That would be insanely expensive, it would destroy neighborhoods near the highways, and it wouldn’t relieve congestion. If you build it, they will come. Drivers who had avoided the highway because of the congestion will head for the wider version. Drivers who had been timing their commutes to avoid the height of rush hour will decide it’s okay to travel at the height of rush hour.

So HOT lanes are a good deal?
If you can get beyond the political ploy of framing the debate as hard-working families versus Arlington joggers, there are plenty of legitimate issues about the HOT lanes program. Most big transportation projects display unintended consequences. Planners did not anticipate that big bottleneck at the southbound end of the 95 Express Lanes and still are trying to figure out what to do about it. Northern Virginia has experienced HOT lanes only since November 2012, when the 495 Express Lanes opened on the Beltway. That’s not a lot of time to measure the effect.

And will there really be enough money left over after operating expenses to provide travel alternatives for solo drivers?

These are just a few of the questions I have about the plan. What are yours?