Robert Puentes is president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, an independent Washington think tank.
When the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) began charging rush-hour tolls on Interstate 66 inside Washington's Beltway, a very important economic experiment was launched. The state put a price on free-flowing traffic by allowing solo drivers to use the road and charged them based on the actual demand for the opportunity to do so. The idea is to see how much money drivers are willing to pay for a guaranteed delay-free trip through one of the densest corridors in the region at the most congested times.
So far, we are learning a lot.
Let's start with the elephant in the room: When it comes to tolls, how high is too high? So much was made of the $34.50 peak that the tolls reached on the first day of the plan that it became a national story. While that price may seem preposterous to many, 39 drivers thought the toll was worth it and were treated to a congestion-free trip that was, on average, 15 minutes faster than a trip on a typical day last December. To put that into perspective, less than one-half of 1 percent of drivers on I-66 paid the peak toll Monday morning.
The high tolls naturally conjure up notions of so-called Lexus lanes, where only the super-rich can afford such a luxury. However, most of those who paid the toll during the morning rush hour — about 55 percent — paid about $10. VDOT data also shows that more than 5,000 vehicles — about 38 percent of traffic — traveled as a carpool and paid no toll. In other words, these travelers enjoyed the same no-traffic, high-speed trip as those who paid the maximum fee. And since there were at least two people in each of those vehicles, that's thousands of commuters who rode for free. That is more than the average number of riders who board the subway at the Ballston Metro station in Arlington each morning.
Of course, transportation officials are not focused on individual roadways. It's no good if a road such as I-66 is cleared up, only to have traffic clog up nearby routes such as Lee Highway (Route 29), Arlington Boulevard (Route 50) or Leesburg Pike (Route 7). Fortunately, data supplied by the state shows that travel times on each of these roads changed very little. The biggest change came on I-66 itself, where both eastbound and westbound trips were much faster for more of the day, which is, of course, the point of the initiative.
Virginia's dynamic pricing strategy is the first of its kind in the nation for a highway such as I-66, but it is not at all unique in transportation. It's exactly the approach private companies such as airlines take when they charge more to operate around the Thanksgiving holiday, and what Uber and Lyft do when demand peaks for rides home late on a Saturday night. In Virginia, what seems to have rankled the general public is that the government, not the private sector, is the architect of the initiative. After all, shouldn't the government treat everyone the same, no matter whether they're in a Lexus or a LeSabre?
But here's where the policymakers behind the I-66 strategy were careful. It would be one thing if the toll revenue went into general coffers in the state capital or if it were repurposed for projects elsewhere in the region. In this case, all the money goes directly to projects to improve travel in the corridor. This includes fixes to existing lanes and the new technology that counts cars and measures traffic, as well as transit service improvements for bus and rail.
Yogi Berra is purported to have said, "If you keep doing what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." Many other states and regions continue to choose a traditional approach to traffic delays by throwing money at the problem. They build more roads that fill right up, so they build more roads, and the cycle continues. Officials in Richmond and Northern Virginia should be applauded for eschewing such a Sisyphean strategy and for trying something bold and different to deal with intractable transportation problems in the region.
By doing so, they just might make the daily commute better for everyone.