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Rage over high tolls on I-66 gives hybrid owners hope for a change

With the outcry over tolling on Interstate 66, owners of hybrid vehicles see an opportunity for a modification of the program that used to allow them an exemption. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Virginia’s owners of hybrid vehicles may have lost their free ride on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway with the  start of dynamic tolling there, but Gregory Scott says he has only just begun to fight.  

With all the ruckus over the record-setting tolls, Scott thinks this may be the time to persuade the state to continue granting an exemption — but for the next generation of fuel-efficient vehicles.  

These might include fully electric vehicles, which are becoming more common, or more-experimental cars powered by compressed gas or hydrogen — all vehicles that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and all, therefore, deserving of a new government incentive, Scott said.  California has such a program, he said.

“What if we change the deal and update the deal?” Scott said in an interview. “What if we reset the bar in terms of another important public-policy priority — reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions?” 

Did Virginia Gov. McAuliffe and his transportation team mislead I-66 commuters on tolling? Maybe not, but they could have done better to inform them

The long-range commuter would be happy to make such a deal on behalf of his own hybrid Lexus and in the interest of an estimated 17,000 other owners of hybrid vehicles with Clean Special Fuel license plates — even though more than a few of them feel that Virginia already reneged on the previous agreement. 

In years past, some Virginia commuters bought hybrids because the government offered them an incentive: having a fuel-efficient vehicle meant a solo driver could use carpool lanes and zip past traffic jams.  

That deal went out the window this month with the start of dynamic tolling inside the Beltway on I-66, which banned bans solo drivers unless they had the Clean Special Fuel license plate available to certain vehicles. Now those drivers either have to find another route, carry at least one passenger or pay up.

As I-66 tolling skyrockets, Va. transportation chief says, “No one has to pay a toll”

Scott, a lawyer and lobbyist who says he bought his first hybrid in 2010 to shave time off his commute from Marshall, Va., to Capitol Hill, said that he has used I-66 since the tolling gantries were activated Dec. 4 and that he was charged $21 on one trip and $28 on another.  

Now, with the outcry over the tolls — which set a new high (or low, depending on your point of view) of $44 on Thursday — Scott sees a chance to persuade the state to modify the program. 

Scott, who formed the 66 Alliance more than two years ago, can claim some success. As Virginia developed a plan to ease congestion and promote mass transit on the I-66 corridor, the 66 Alliance’s agenda included: ensuring that the minimum carpool size inside the Beltway didn’t increase from two people to three (HOV2 to HOV3); that the state would add lanes in exchange for imposing tolls; and that tolls would not be imposed on reverse commuters — those people who head out of the District against the flow of most commuter traffic in the morning and vice versa at night.

The 66 Alliance — which claims about 1,700 members — blitzed the General Assembly and claimed victories on those initiatives.  But its effort to extend the exemption for hybrids — the very thing that had inspired Scott to form the organization — came up short.      

Scott readily acknowledges that the retention of some form of exemption would be in his special interest — but it also makes sense as a way of creating an incentive for motorists to move to newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Thanks to the Clean Special Fuel program, he traded in a BMW 7 Series for a Honda Civic just because of the ability to skip the traffic jams. He is on his fifth hybrid. 

“I will tell you that’s how I based my life,” Scott said. He said he once found himself chatting with state Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier) at a cocktail party and told her that his vote depended on one issue: the continuation of an exemption for hybrid vehicles. “She said, ‘You know what, I’ve heard a lot of people say the same thing,’ ” Scott said. “That’s basically how they stay sane with the commute they developed.”

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