The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission on Thursday rejected a proposal that sought to lower the rates on the new Interstate 66 toll lanes, instead giving the Virginia Department of Transportation a few months to evaluate the controversial tolling system and its effect on transit patterns along the corridor inside the Capital Beltway.
A motion approved at the board’s monthly meeting urges the state’s transportation agency to report to the board by late spring with an evaluation of the I-66 toll operations and its effect on commuter patterns to transit operations.
The measure replaced a much harsher proposal by Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run), that sought action on lowering the tolling costs. That proposal suggested reconfiguring the system, dropping the minimum speed to 45 mph, lowering the base price and/or capping the maximum toll. The resolution also sought an evaluation of altering the tolling hours to bring them closer to back to where the previous HOV restricted periods.
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 week, igniting outrage among commuters. The rates vary based upon demand.
Deputy Virginia Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue on Thursday said it would take weeks if not months to see the new traffic patterns settle. He said the agency will continue to analyze traffic patterns and consider changes to the system’s algorithm to bring rates down and allow more commuters to use that stretch of highway.
But some officials say they are still troubled by high tolls seen in December, a month that generally delivers lighter traffic because of the holidays.
“The system simply isn’t working,” Meyer, a vocal critic of the toll system, said in an interview. “I don’t think anyone can say that tolls of $40 is what it was designed for.”
The toll system is designed to allow single-occupant vehicles to legally use the roadway, which previously was limited to carpoolers and buses during rush hours. The rush period, however, was expanded with the new system, and 0fficials hope the tolls would encourage drivers to join carpools or take public transportation.
Meyer, however, said he’s heard from dozens of commuters who have struggled in recent weeks to find alternate routes to get to work in the District, and are spending more time on the road and less time with family. And he said other commuters told him that taking public transit takes as much as 45 minutes longer than driving.
“It is absolutely miserable for them,” Meyer said. “We have to offer people better travel options. All this does is punish people who drive.”
State transportation officials, however, say the toll lanes are operating as intended, giving solo drivers the option to pay to use the roadway while giving carpoolers and bus riders smoother rides, with more consistent speeds.
Drivers with one or more passengers can ride in the lanes for free using an E-ZPass Flex. All other drivers need an E-ZPass to pay the toll.
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. The average daily toll on the first two weeks was $13.52, according to VDOT data. Morning commuters paid more, with a typical eastbound trip for the entire 10-mile stretch averaging $8.88. The westbound trip in the afternoon commute was $4.60.
Although the posted tolls peaked above $40 on at least two mornings, state transportation officials say, only a few drivers chose to pay that much. On debut day, 39 vehicles paid the $34.50 that posted around 8:36 a.m for the entire 10-mile stretch. On Tuesday Dec. 5, the second day of tolling, 29 vehicles paid $40 and a week later, on Dec. 14, 17 vehicles paid $44.
State transportation officials acknowledge the tolls have been higher than anticipated, but say they reflect the high demand to use one of Washington’s busiest roadways.
Donohue said VDOT, which operates the lanes, will explore adjustments and will not dismiss the idea of lowering the target speed. For example, the state could lower the target speed from 55 mph to 50 mph, or even 45 mph, keeping traffic moving briskly but allowing more cars into the system.
Over the past month, nearby routes, such as U.S. 50 and the George Washington Parkway,`have seen higher volumes of traffic, officials said. But they say data show that travel times have not increased.
Anecdotally, officials in Northern Virginia say, trips on commuter buses have increased along the corridor, including robust ridership on the new bus service from Fairfax County to Foggy Bottom. Early Metro numbers, however, showed no significant changes in the ridership along the corridor.
Interest in the use slug lines also has surged since the toll lanes opened, said Kalai Kandasamy, who helps organize the instant carpooling option — a Washington-area commuting tradition in which drivers who want to use HOV lanes stop to pick up passengers. As many as 500 I-66 commuters have signed up for slugging in the corridor, Kandasamy said.