Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) had a lot to say about transportation politics during a WTOP radio interview Wednesday, but what caught my attention was his statement that the Virginia Department of Transportation would drop part of its plan for tolling drivers on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

That’s the part of the high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes plan that would impose tolls on reverse commuters, those traveling against the peak flow at rush-hour.

Removing this element of the tolling plan had not been part of any VDOT presentation I’d heard or any discussion I had with VDOT officials in 2015.

On Wednesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne elaborated on his boss’s announcement. Layne said he was “99 percent sure” that reverse tolling would not be part of the inside-the-Beltway HOT lanes plan. Among the reasons:

  • Reverse commuters have pointed out that while the peak direction on I-66 is open only to drivers who meet the HOV rules, the opposite direction is open to everyone. While allowing solo drivers access to the HOV lanes if they’re willing to pay a toll represents a new option, forcing all drivers going the other way to pay a toll would impose pain for no gain.
  • VDOT has studied what HOT lanes would do to traffic on parallel routes. In the peak direction, VDOT does not expect to see a significant impact, because drivers going that way have a new option. However, the research showed there would be some impact in the reverse direction, as those drivers bailed out of I-66 and chose the free roads instead.
  • The toll revenue that could be devoted to helping commuters leave their cars behind would not drop significantly if they reverse commuters could drive free.

This is the second major change to VDOT’s plan for I-66 inside the Beltway. The first was the decision to maintain the HOV2 standard for carpoolers rather than toughening it to HOV3, in which the carpools would need to have at least three people. Qualifying carpoolers get to ride free in HOV lanes, and it’s much more difficult to get three people together for a commute than two people.

There’s a political dimension to the change for the reverse commuters, and McAuliffe got into that again during a speech on Thursday to the Governor’s Transportation Conference in Virginia Beach.

Republican candidates for General Assembly have attacked the governor on the tolling plan, saying that the governor plans to force commuters to pay “$17 tolls.” That’s VDOT’s estimate for what solo drivers would pay to use the entire 10 miles of the HOV lanes at the peak of the peak in both directions.

In his speech, McAuliffe described the idea that drivers would be forced to pay such tolls as “an absolute lie.”

“We’re giving single drivers the option” of using the HOV lanes “if they want to pay the toll,” he said. “The idea that we’re adding a $17 toll, it’s an absolute lie.”

VDOT officials note that even most solo drivers won’t be paying $17 a day, since they’d need to drive the entire route between the Beltway and the District at the exact time when traffic each way is at its worst.

The toll for the reverse commuters would have been several dollars, since there’s much less demand to travel in the reverse direction. Still, they were a politically inconvenient group, because they’d be paying that toll for a route they already can access.

The toll revenue left over after the expenses of operating the HOT lanes system inside the Beltway will go to supporting alternative transportation — carpooling and commuter buses, for example. Layne said he is “very confident” that the extra revenue will be sufficient to support that investment and will help ease congestion in the I-66 corridor.