Several Virginia lawmakers are calling on the state to suspend tolls on Interstate 66, condemning this week’s variable tolls that hit as high as $40 as “outrageous” and “unacceptable”.
A group of Northern Virginia Democrats is urging Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne to halt the new toll program until a cap is set and more transit options are available, and they join a growing list of elected officials troubled by the high tolls that have left many drivers with sticker shock.
Thursday afternoon, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun), state Sen. Jeremy S. McPike (Prince William), Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun) and Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) will hold a news conference outside the Virginia Department of Transportation headquarters in Fairfax to call for a suspension of the new system.
“The bottom line is this is very different from what we briefed people it would be,” said Bell, who has opposed tolling on 66. He said VDOT told him that as many as 76 commuters paid $40 at the peak of the morning rush hour on Tuesday, out of about 11,000 vehicles that went through the system during the morning rush. But, it is still unclear what the average toll is.
Bell said the state plan presented to residents also was based on having a target speed of 45 mph in the corridor. This week the tolls were set to maintain an average speed of 55 mph.
Layne called the attacks on the program “political rhetoric” based on “inaccurate data” from lawmakers who have long opposed tolling. When asked if he would halt the tolls, he said “the answer is going to be no.” He said the system is working as intended.
“The General Assembly and the governor reached agreement. It is what we said was going to happen,” he said, recalling the negotiations in Richmond over converting the 66 corridor to HOT lanes. “We should not be using incorrect information or inflating things to make a political point. There’s too much at stake here. We are trying to increase transportation opportunities in the corridor.”
The rush hour, peak direction high-occupancy toll (HOT) system from Route 29 in Rosslyn to Interstate 495 opened Monday with expanded rush hour periods — 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 to 7 p.m. westbound, Monday through Friday. Tolls hit $34.50 on day one— or close to $3.50 a mile — to drive the 10-mile stretch during the height of the morning commute. The toll reached $40 on Tuesday morning, $23 Wednesday and $25 .50 Thursday.
The high tolls almost immediately sparked outage on social media and drew national attention. Drivers took to Twitter to condemn the high rates with the hashtag #highwayrobbery. Republican and Democrat elected officials joined the chorus, calling the tolls “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”
Earlier this week, Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, called on his colleagues to immediately “come together to craft a realistic public policy solution that helps lower the costs of commuting for single-occupancy vehicles on I-66.”
And Republican members of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission 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.
Previously, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) restrictions limited use of that section of I-66 during rush hours to vehicles with two or more occupants and drivers of hybrid vehicles with special clean-fuel license plates. But the expansion of the rush hour periods by 90 minutes, along with the elimination of the exemption for hybrids, means that some solo drivers who legally used the highway before or planned their commute around the shorter rush-hour periods are no longer able to do so unless they are willing to pay.
Some lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say the state misled residents and the legislature when it presented the toll plan with estimates of a maximum toll of $17 roundtrip. VDOT officials say those projections were based on average tolls, not peak of the peak tolls.
In a presentation to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission in September 2015, Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said the tolls were projected to be about $7 going eastbound in the morning rush hour and about $9 westbound in the evening.
“The tolls would vary significantly depending on congestion,” Donohue said, according to meeting minutes.
The tolls are dynamic, meaning they change according to demand and volume of traffic to maintain a target speed. The tolls are calculated every six minutes. During Monday’s commutes, the average speed was 57 mph consistently. The average speed Tuesday was 54 mph, state officials said.
Under federal law the state is required to maintain a speed of 45 mph 90 percent of the time, state officials said. But the state developed an algorithm to help ensure free flow traffic on the roadway at a higher speed than required.
Layne said the consistent speeds save motorists travel time and enable commuter buses to run on time. He said VDOT, which operates the lanes, will explore adjustments, including lowering the target speed to keep traffic moving briskly, but allowing more cars into the system.
Bell said the state needs to scale tolls back to what he said it promised: $17 maximum roundtrip, and a set speed of 45 mph. And, he said, significant improvements need to be made to transit and parking infrastructure.
“The idea was to get people out of (cars) into other modes, which are great things to do. But we need to make sure that those other avenues are there before we charged people up to $40 a day,” Bell said.
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 to the Pentagon via I-66, and from Fairfax to Foggy Bottom. By law, a portion of the toll revenue will go to support more carpooling and commuter-bus service.
On Monday, the 66 Alliance, an advocacy group of more than 1,500 Northern Virginians who commute on I-66, called for an “immediate suspension” of the system, saying that “Virginia commuters have been sold a bill of goods” by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Layne.
Founder Greg Scott said he paid $21 Monday morning to get from the Beltway to the Roosevelt Bridge, much higher than the $17 round trip he said the state predicted “for years”.
“The 66 Alliance calls on VDOT to suspend the I-66 toll program immediately and for the Virginia General Assembly to investigate VDOT, Secretary Layne and the I-66 toll program before the program is permitted to be relaunched,” Scott said.