Tolls and a Transportation Fix

Tolls and a Transportation Fix

Could the links add up to $20 and more per trip? And why won’t Virginia issue bonds if it can collect that kind of toll revenue?

As someone who pays more than $10 to drive round-trip the entire length of the Dulles Toll Road and then Greenway to Leesburg on my way out to Hillsboro, I am forced to recognize that commuters and others will pay to drive on congestion-free roads.

Leaving my office in Alexandria, however, I could soon have the choice to pay to drive in the High Occupancy Toll Lanes on my way around the Beltway, then a possible future choice to pay either the basic rate or an upgraded rate to drive on the Dulles Toll Road, followed by the choice to drive on the Greenway or to take Route 7 out into outer Loudoun. Could that add up to $15 or more each way? (Already during rush hour, it costs $5.25 each way on the Greenway, $4.55 off peak; and it’s $1.75 on the Dulles Toll Road.)

Toll lanes are also on the drawing board for 395 and 95, places where effective means (slug lines) are in place to gather enough (three) people in a car to qualify as "High Occupancy," the current qualifier for using the existing HOV lanes. You can’t buy your way onto those lanes at this point.

Choosing all the tolls would be well beyond most people’s means in anything but an emergency. But others will be able to consider the cost a business expense, or will be able to value their own time highly enough to pay the freight.

The real concern is that we aren’t using the future tolls to create funding for the broad transportation initiatives that we need to thrive economically. The current model of public-private partnerships allows private companies to collect and keep all the tolls virtually forever (50 years) in exchange for building these particular roads.

But knowing that the revenue stream is out there, Virginia could issue bonds and contract the building of the roads and toll lanes, thereby using any surplus revenue to continue to improve the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure.

Once you admit that you’re going to charge tolls, really significant dollar amounts of tolls, you don’t need a public private partnership to make transportation improvements happen. You can manage contractors and use the revenue stream to keep Virginia moving. The commonwealth seems only to be able to stomach high tolls when the money is going to a private company, not when it might go to the public good in the future.

Still one can only hope that 20-30 years from now the idea of rush hour and congestion — that we will each climb into a car one person at a time and drive on the same roads to work at the same time every day — will be as inconceivable as dial-up access to the internet.

Then all those extra lanes might be wide open with little toll revenue coming in.

And we can only hope that whoever is writing the contracts for these public private partnerships has the best interests of the Commonwealth at heart and isn’t shifting the risk of that sort of innovation away from the private sector while leaving them to reap the profits without sharing.

Maybe in 50 years, the separate HOT Lanes will serve to separate bicyclists from skateboarders from pedestrians as old roadways become the recreational areas of the future, much as unused rail lines and former tow paths.

Mary Kimm,