It took a few days and a lot of shouting, but the hullabaloo over the HOT lanes on Interstate 66 has settled down — not unlike the peak toll rates, and just as Virginia transportation officials predicted.
By Friday, the peak toll was $14.50, which seemed almost like a bargain compared with the $40 peak in the first few days after the system went live Monday.
Hate them if you will, but the new tolls also appear to be doing what they were supposed to do: If you really insist on commuting solo in a major metropolitan area on an artery that’s already clogged, then you also deserve a heart attack when you see the toll sign flashing the cost. That’s market price, and you should pay up, stay off or form a carpool. NBC4 reported that the fuss led at least one Virginia man to use social media to form new casual carpools, also known as “slug lines.”
What outraged some drivers most, however, was the feeling that they had been conned by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and his transportation team when the cost of the plan to commuters was under discussion. In the walk-up before the new tolls went into effect, many Virginians got the idea that the toll would be no more than $9 to $10 a day. So when the tolls hit extremes, many motorists — not to mention some Democratic and Republican lawmakers — hit the roof.
“The bottom line is this is very different from what we briefed people it would be,” Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun), an opponent of tolling on I-66, told my colleague Luz Lazo.
Others have been blunter in saying the McAuliffe administration misled people. The Republican Party of Virginia accused McAuliffe’s administration of ensuring that the tolls would be switched on only after the gubernatorial election to choose his successor. Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run), who is also a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), urged the NVTC to pass a resolution demanding that the tolls be lowered or suspended.
But Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration never misled anyone. He said that when transportation officials talked about a $17 average daily toll during peak hours, they meant what they said, an average — all short trips and long trips along that section of highway, and with peaks and valleys of demand.
“All the discussion about this was in terms of averages,” Coy said. “So that would fundamentally require that at many other times tolls would be considerably higher and considerably lower.”
The idea of tolling I-66 inside the Beltway is part of larger program to expand the highway’s number of lanes and raise funds for additional improvements to mass transit and bike lanes.
In September 2015, Nick Donohue, deputy transportation secretary, gave a presentation to the NVTC on the state’s proposal for dynamic tolling inside the Beltway. He told the commission the “typical toll” during rush hour would be $7 inbound in the morning and $9 outbound at night — a number picked up and repeated many times in media coverage. He did say the tolls would vary depending on congestion.
Coy, the governor’s spokesman, said that transportation officials modeled those estimates based on the experience of the HOT lanes that already are in place on the Beltway — where, incidentally, some tolls were up around $30 last week. He also wanted to emphasize that the new I-66 tolls are voluntary: they apply only to solo drivers during the height of the rush hour. He also made another prediction: In time, I-66 traffic would adjust to market forces.
“[W]e’re only four days in. I think in two weeks, this conversation will be fundamentally different,” Coy said Friday.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, also thinks Virginians had fair notice. He suggested that some commuters and Northern Virginia lawmakers might not have been listening — or chose to hear what they wanted to hear — when state officials discussed the plan. And in any case, he said, the $40 tolls this week weren’t out of line, considering the circumstances on the first day.
“Remember, this is a peak-of-the-peak toll. It’s also a peak-of-the-peak in the first day for a road that hadn’t been available to single-occupant drivers,” Schwartz said in an interview. “It suddenly became available for single-occupant drivers, and so there’s probably a ton of interest and demand that is far beyond what we will see” later.
Schwartz praised the plan for I-66, though he would have preferred more emphasis on promoting transit-oriented development instead of highway expansion. He believes Virginia transportation officials did their duty to advise commuters about how the system would work.
“I can’t speak for all the comments that were made back in the day,” he said. “But I do know they were talking about averages.”
McAuliffe is and has always been a pitchman, known for sometimes making claims whose casual relationship with the facts could make a used-car salesman blush. (Cf. GreenTech.) It’s almost become part of his charm.
But it seems like an overstatement to say that McAuliffe or Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne deceived people. There may be broader issues to consider about HOT lanes — whether they aggravate America’s growing inequities or whether we should be placing tolls on roads purchased with taxpayer funds — but when state officials talked about what they thought would be the daily cost, it seems reasonable to speak of averages and the bulging middle of the Bell curve for all trips.
But even if they didn’t sell Virginia a lemon this time, the administration should have been much more explicit in its briefings for the public and public officials; their public presentations should have explained more clearly what they were averaging. In the run-up, the administration also could have prepared commuters with more upfront warnings that the sky was the limit for tolls, depending on the circumstances. Sure, these caveats might have played into the hands of their political opponents, who had their own reasons for playing up the impact, but it also would have spared lots of people this week’s sticker shock.