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Virginia’s price-gouging toll collector should return $30 to snowbound drivers

Highway robbery: Tolls skyrocketed to $30 on the Interstate 495 express lanes as a snowstorm approached last week. This picture was taken in 2012, not long after express toll lanes opened on the Beltway from Springfield to Tyson Corner. (photo by Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post).

As an approaching snowstorm brought traffic a predictable standstill last week, tolls on a stretch of the Beltway in Virginia skyrocketed — $30.

There are all sorts of good reasons why the price of access to the Interstate 495 Express Lanes should go that high. They’re the same dynamic forces from Economics 101 that jack up the price of plywood ahead of a hurricane or drive prescription drug prices higher in an aging population. It’s capitalism. It’s what the market will bear. It’s a way of allocating resources in high demand, etc.

But the people who practice these forms of price-gouging in situations like last week’s snow-impaired traffic– and the political leaders who look the other way to allow them to occur — still deserve a special place in an unbearably hot, eternal traffic jam somewhere.

Transurban, the Australia-based company that bought the rights to toll motorists in Northern Virginia a few years ago, blamed the Jan. 5 backup on Virginia Department of Transportation road crews. Two trucks with plows and salt were prepping the road ahead of the storm when rush hour hit, contributing to a backup on the southbound 495 Express Lanes. To manage the flow of traffic in the express lanes, tolls shot skyward. And the sky’s the limit, because there is no cap on the toll, which fluctuates based on real-time traffic demand.

But Transurban, bless its soul, also showed that toll collectors do have a conscience. They expressed an interest in making things right, encouraging motorists “concerned with the price they were charged” to call customer service, Fox 5 reported. On Twitter, the company said customers who “experienced difficulties with their trip” should do the same.

Some Twitter folk were not impressed.

“Never underestimate the power of a little snow to gum up the works on at area roadways,” AAA-MidAtlantic spokesman John B. Townsend said this week. Townsend said that with dynamic pricing, drivers expect to pay more for the convenience of a timely ride, but the combination of a little snow and the higher-than-expected toll took many by surprise — and so they’re entitled to the “expectation that Transurban will rectify the exorbitant toll fee and make them whole again.”

Transurban spokesman Mike McGurk said Thursday that the company is  “working with customers” who were riled up about the $30 tolls. In other words, the company is offering refunds without making explicit that it’s offering refunds — or making those refunds automatic.

“We’re doing right by our customers,” McGurk said. “We depend on customers who want to come back and use the lane.”

McGurk objected to the characterization of the $30 toll as “price-gouging” because a free alternative was available next door. He also had some reasonable things to say about HOT lanes that help explain why they are not the terrible things some people think they are and why, according to company data, six in 10 drivers in the region have used them at least once.

HOT lane tolls fluctuate only as a means of controlling access to lanes that would guarantee an efficient trip — and the company is obligated to use tolls to ensure that, he said. Under federal regulations and its contract, the company must ensure that the express lanes have minimum average travel times: 45 mph on Interstate 495 and 55 mph on Interstate 95.

“It’s not us charging $30 just because we felt like charging $30,” McGurk said. Few people use express lanes every day or their whole length. Most hop on and off when they really need to get somewhere, and they’re happy to pay more to save time, he said. He also emphasized that the events last week were highly unusual.

The thing is, my colleague Robert Thomson — AKA Dr. Gridlock, and a self-described fan of HOT lanes  — pointed out in late December that tolls on the Beltway were getting up to “remarkably high levels”  and the express lanes were “not so express.” At the time, a Transurban spokesman chalked it up to a “perfect storm” of earlier sundowns, holiday traffic around Tysons and spillover from Metro’s SafeTrack.

Holidays are hot season for express toll lanes

There’s no telling how many Richie Riches sucked it up last Thursday during the approaching snowstorm and paid the toll so that they could get to the supermarket before all the milk and toilet paper were gone. But there were plenty of other people seething in bumper-to-bumper traffic over the lose-lose situation Virginia lawmakers and transportation officials had put them in that night.

Virginia might think twice about legalizing highway robbery again – and Americans ought to give serious thought to the idea that the only way we can afford basic infrastructure is by auctioning it off.  If we must privatize, there must also be some way of still regulating how those public spaces are governed.

What Transurban should have said, in plain English, is that it would immediately grant at least partial refunds and then pledge not to do it again.

–This post has been updated to correct the minimum average speed on Interstate 95

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