The Lesson of $40 Highway Tolls in Virginia

The cost of driving solo on the high-demand stretch of I-66 inside the Beltway. Photo: Salesgrincity/Twitter
The cost of driving solo on the high-demand stretch of I-66 inside the Beltway. Photo: Salesgrincity/Twitter

This week in northern Virginia, the congested stretch of I-66 inside the Beltway opened to solo drivers during the morning rush, for a price.

Previously, during peak hours these 10 miles of I-66 had been limited to carpoolers, people with hybrid vehicles, and people heading to Dulles Airport. The new policy lets carpoolers use the road for free, while solo drivers pay a toll. This allowed solo drivers to use I-66 at a time when they’d previously been banned, but they were surprised to see rush hour prices ranging between $30 and $40.

The rates are well above the $6 tolls officials had told people to anticipate. But that’s what it costs to allow access to single-occupancy vehicles without jamming the road. By law, toll prices are automatically set to keep traffic moving at 55 mph. The high rates reflect high demand (though there’s speculation that the prices are being calibrated higher than they need to be).

David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington writes that this whole experience is instructive, because it’s one of the few cases where solo drivers have to confront the full cost of their trips. There are lessons for other road projects, he says:

The real reason there’s sticker shock is that the real cost of road transportation is hidden from most voters. Gas tax money goes to states and the US Department of Transportation which flows back as what seems like free federal money to build a lot of roads. Meanwhile, every transit project has to scrimp for funds and deal with constant sniping from critics calling it a “boondoggle.”

I-66 inside the Beltway is already built and not adding new capacity, but Virginia is adding lanes outside the Beltway under a public-private partnership, and Governor Larry Hogan has proposed the same for nearly every Maryland highway. That’s a really expensive proposition, and he’d prefer to make it sound cheap. But Ben Ross estimated that tolls would have to be at least $41 to pay off the costs of construction.

I haven’t seen a lot of people citing Ross’s numbers, but they should. After this experience in Virginia, that might be low!

Loudoun supervisor Matt LeTourneau pointed out on the Kojo Nnamdi Show that Virginia lawmakers might have made different decisions about the I-66 project had they known. For instance, the project cost $120 million, he said; maybe they wouldn’t have spent that kind of money. Perhaps this can be a cautionary tale for Maryland, to at least go into any widening and tolling with its eyes open (or eschew the idea).

The region doesn’t have to build expensive road projects that will either result in high tolls or large subsidies to drivers, Alpert points out. Smarter land use planning and investments in transit can create a better transportation system at lower cost.

More recommended reading today: Smart Growth America sounds the alarm about provisions of the GOP tax bill that will hurt cities and undermine housing affordability. And Buffalo Rising writes that after refusing to install bike lanes on Main Street, the city of Buffalo inadvertently proved that they would work fine, by closing a lane for construction.

67 thoughts on The Lesson of $40 Highway Tolls in Virginia

  1. Must have misunderstood. I’m from the area – I believe WMATA, ART, and the Fairfax Connector all have routes along this section of I-66.

  2. No, any revenue is required to be used within the I66 corridor for projects which improve travel conditions for the I66 toll payers. Those projects (many already in development) could be additional busses, improved subway, etc. But they have to be specifically related to the I66 corridor. So,no building stroads and spaghetti interchanges….

  3. of course, you neglect to mention that by building that spaghetti interchange, traffic backups throughout that area have improved tremendously and accident rates have dropped. What’s your solution to traffic congestion?

  4. The HOV hours would have been extended and the clean fuel plates exemption would have been eliminated regardless of tolling. Requirements from federal highway related to HOV facilities require average speeds to be kept at 45mph or higher. As I66 was highly congested, Virginia was already in process of removing exemption, extending HOV hours and changing from HOV 2 to HOV3. And to be very clear, the clean fuel plates exemption was only for people who have clean fuel plates that they got prior to 2012. And there are only 17,000 of those throughout the entire state.

  5. The system can do that currently. I attended most of the public meetings and hearings on this project and one of the requirements was that the system can be set to HOV only which is what it was all along. But let’s be clear, when the price was $40 (and it was only at that level for about 6 minutes) a couple dozen people paid that price, if that many. I wouldn’t pay that much. But I’ve had no issue paying the $5-7 rate on my drive this past week. And enjoyed driving 50+MPH rather than stop and go on Rt. 50. and getting to work 20 minutes earlier.

  6. The more I think about it, the more I think the whole system is screwball. I prefer ways to get places where you know how long it will take, and how much it will cost, before you set out. With I-66, you know either how long it will take, or how much it will cost depending on whether you decide to do the HOV lane. Once you’re out on the road and you see the toll is $40, how many choices do you really have?

    Maybe a better solution would be to set tolls based on time windows, and update those prices monthly based on traffic. It wouldn’t have the same level of market “efficiency” as what they have now, but I think it would feel saner to so many people.

  7. If I was a major business owner, I would locate my business where there’s a lot of economic activity, using things like pedestrian activity & traffic counts as a pretty good indicator of economic activity.

    If I was a government, I’d be trying to put in place mechanisms that allow business owners to locate in greater & greater intensities where there are those nexus of economic activity. I certainly would not widen highways & interchanges at these high value locations as replacing potentially high value property with non-tax paying government infrastructure is a pretty poor economic strategy.

  8. No.1 – Budgets are pretty fungible. Unless there are mechanisms that the legacy funding levels for the 66 corridor are not proportionately reduced, i would suspect that this will simply increase VDOTs budget, with the proceeds going to their normal business-as-usual pet projects. No. 2 – I’m not particularly impressed with VDOT’s track record on highway or transit. It seems clear to me that they’ve built considerably more expensive infrastructure than the tax-base will be able to maintain over the long term.

  9. No, the revenue from the tolls is specifically divided. Cost of operating the toll system (not maintaining the road itself), payments in the debt for installing the toll system and the rest of the money goes to NVTCA to fund projects selected by NVTCA that will benefit the toll paying drivers. The costs of maintaining the road remain separate and are funded through the same process as always. Don’t spout assumptions when the info is readily available that refutes your assumptions. Read the agreement with NVTCA and the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s resolution that approved installing the toll system. It’s very clearly spelled out

  10. I’m pretty well informed on this and the process it went through to get approved & implemented. Nothing that I have seen in any of the contract information or materials on the transform 66 website refutes my comments regarding budgets being fungible.

    If someone gives me 10 shares of apple stock contingent on me signing a contract saying that the dividends go to paying for my kid’s lunch money – the contract is essentially ceremonial because I would have paid for my kid’s lunch no matter what. That’s the substance of what’s going on here: the public is “giving” NVTC a bunch of money that they are required spend on “multi-modal” projects that would formerly have been VDOT led. Thus VDOT has more money to do other projects, which to-date have mostly been sprawl-building & commuter rail-type extensions to metro. Neither of which are high value, in my opinion.

    At the end of the day, I don’t mind the tolls or the concept. I just would have dispersed the funds directly the Arlington and Fairfax counties and let them do as they please – fund schools, police, buses, “multi-modal” improvements etc. The current design just has the end result of turbo-charging the over-building of commuter infrastructure, which NoVa is already swimming in.

  11. No, none of the NVTCA projects are or would have been VDOT funded. VDOT would not be involved in adding bus runs for prince William county transit. Or any of the other projects that NVTCA has approved to get some of the 66 revenue. Where are you getting your info on project funding? Sounds like just conjecture on your part and not based on any actual facts.

  12. I don’t know why you would think that. VDOT’s own 2040 plan put the lack of transit service between DC and Front Royale as the top intermodal priority on the I-66 corridor.

  13. I would think that because I have read the agreements that were made. Doesn’t matter what VDOT priorities are. Revenue beyond operational cost and debt payments goes to NVTCA not VDOT and NVTCA determines the projects the money will be spent in. $10million has already been given and disbursed by NVTCA. You can check the specific projects funded. All are projects controlled by local government not state. And NVTCA is local government people not state. Why don’t you actually read the agreements and project information rather and become informed rather than making in accurate assumptions and making non factual statements?

  14. Malarkey. I’ve read agreements, read the planning meeting minutes as this developed for the last several years years, every wapo article, and personally commuted 66 in the impacted section for the most of the last 5 years. I’ve privately researched other states tolling regimes. I am as informed as an private citizen can be expected to be on this topic. I think we have a genuine difference of opinion on the effectiveness of these funding arrangements. Fine.

    Maybe VA will be different than every other state that’s tried this but I doubt it.

  15. Have you read the transportation board agreement? The NVTCA agreements? Every project approved by the NVTCA that was funded by the initial $10m is run by local governments. And that’s what the legal requirement is. You can wax philosophical about what might be but I’ll stick to what the law requires. All money stays in corridor and excess revenue goes to local government run projects that benefit the 66 corridor. Feel free to point to some facts rather than just your opinion anytime.

  16. There is a difference in the law between a municipal government and a regional transportation commission. The former educates children, polices our streets and could theoretically cut taxes. The latter is mandated to spend its budget on a narrow range of transportation projects, which simply adds to an already bloated transportation mix, (to-date) funds very low value commuter transit projects, and enables vdot to focus all its resources on sprawl building.

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