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Commentary: Taking a Toll on Virginians

Governor Bob McDonnell came to Tysons Corner last week to participate in a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the opening for the 495 Express Lanes that took place on Nov. 17. More than 500 people turned out to celebrate the opening of the first in Virginia high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes with demand pricing. The level of the tolls will be indicated on digital signs when you enter the lanes, but the amount of the toll will depend on the number of people on the road that can continue their speed at 55 miles per hour. Persons with three or more in the car will not be assessed a toll as long as they have an EZ-Pass Flex that they can turn off. All users of the road must have an EZ-Pass or EZ-Pass Flex. For more details on how this technology-rich system works, go to 495expresslanes.com.

Waiting for the governor on his way from the hotel was a small group of demonstrators carrying placards protesting tolls the governor has proposed to put in place on I95 south of Richmond. The protestors brought a trailer truck that they had parked in the street with a billboard-size message on the trailer protesting the tolls. The realities of Virginia’s transportation funding crisis were evident that day. Funding projects like the public-private project improvements to the Beltway are only possible when tolls are collected to pay back the private sector costs with a return on investments. As unpopular as tolls are, as the demonstrators expressed, the unfortunate truth is that tolling will increase in the future.

Tolls are not new to the residents of this area. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority that is building the Silver Line extension of Metrorail just voted last week to raise the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to $2.75 total to help pay for the project. Improvements to traffic-congested I95 in Northern Virginia will be financed through a HOT lanes arrangement just like the Beltway. Tunnel improvements in Hampton Roads as well as roadway expansion are being paid for with tolls. Putting tolls on the interstate that brought out the protestors is viewed as a way to finance highway improvements.

The General Assembly has shown no willingness to raise the gas tax or other sources of revenue to fix highway congestion that in Northern Virginia has been found to be the worst in the nation. The current gas tax rate is the lowest in the country and continues to produce less revenue as cars become more fuel efficient. Other sources of revenue are ear-marked for other government services. But the problem must be addressed! I am totally open to working with the governor and other legislators in resolving this issue. Otherwise, the current direction is going to take an increasing toll on Virginians.