Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The toll road troll gets his nose under the I-66 tent.

Yesterday, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) unanimously approved the tolling of I-66 inside the Beltway for one-passenger cars that are headed eastbound during morning rush.  About three hours of tolls for 40,000 autos out of the more than 400,000 that make that trip each workday.   

The tip of the toll road troll nose just barely got stuck under the I-66 tent as the result of some last minute maneuvering to allow toll-free driving in the opposite direction during afternoon rush.  The decision will actually add vehicles to the dreadfully congested I-66 route, especially in the absence of any plans to expand the highway. 

We have no objection to tolling a highway—any highway—for the purpose of providing revenues to maintain and improve the highway, but this plan, like most other tolling plans, is aimed at taxing drivers to provide revenues for other purposes.  In this case, any surplus funds—and the tolls will be high enough to make sure they generate surplus funds—will be used to provide public transit options generally in the inside the Beltway I-66 corridor.   The Washington Post says, “The state expects to generate $18 million in toll revenue in 2018, the first year in which tolls will be fully implemented. The money can be used to support mass transit options on the I-66 corridor, as well as the possible widening of eastbound I-66.”

Well, there are no plans to widen eastbound (or westbound) I-66 and it is unlikely that there will be any for years, if not decades.  Physically, it will be extremely difficult to add a third lane from Falls Church to the Roosevelt Bridge as anyone who has driven that route well knows.  And with that extreme difficulty goes tremendous expense.  Moreover, Arlington County almost violently opposes any widening of the highway into its various neighborhoods and has since the interstate was built decades ago.

We think it more likely that, within a few years, the new toll will be expanded to all users of I-66 inside the Beltway—possibly with the toll break for carpools--and possibly from just peak periods to 24-hours per day with rates varying with peak flow periods.  Once the toll gate spigot begins generating revenues, there is no stopping the expansion of its coverage and increases in the tolls.

Moreover, we expect that the use of the tolls will expand to public transit measures well beyond the Beltway.   In fact, we anticipate that tolling I-66 will expand well beyond the Beltway.  It is easy to foresee that, as Northern Virginia continues to grow, tolling will extend as far out as Gainesville, ostensibly to help sustain the interstate and constrain traffic flows.  Those tolls will, like Dulles Toll Road tolls, be used to extend Metrorail’s Orange Line as far as the tolls—to the Gainesville exit area.

Our state and local leaders see a massive potential revenue flow from these tolls to help offset the huge cost of transportation infrastructure construction and operation.  They may even see future opportunities to extend the use of those tolls to non-transportation uses.  All they have to do is to take one tiny step at a time in moving forward so as not to so upset their constituents that they all get thrown out of office.  The first step is to get the toll troll’s nose under the tent.  That box has now been checked. 

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