I-66 Shows the Cost of Urban Roadway Access – And It Isn’t Cheap

December 8, 2017

Northern Virginia is realizing the consequence of its success. A growing economy and increasing population mean limited space on its transportation infrastructure, evident through its notoriously congested roadways and transit lines. With no ability to expand existing capacity, transportation officials are turning to other means to encourage more efficient use of its network: new tolls on Interstate 66 closest to the region’s core. This is a positive step for transportation in the region.

Virginia’s I-66 feeds one of the densest parts of Virginia into downtown Washington. Given its limited capacity and high demand, Virginia has always restricted peak hour use to vehicles with two or more occupants. That changed on December 4, when for the first time the state began allowing vehicles with only one occupant to use the roadway, subject to a toll that varies based on demand. High occupant vehicles (HOV) with two or more people could still drive for free.

Here are the details:

  • Since its construction in the 1970s, Virginia has limited the use of the roadway in peak directions to HOV 2+, with restrictions on weekdays from 6:30 AM – 9:00 AM eastbound and 4:00 PM – 6:30 PM westbound. The lanes have been free for any user outside of those time restrictions.
  • Starting on December 4, the restricted hours were extended to 5:30 AM – 9:30 AM eastbound and 3:00PM – 7:00 PM westbound. Single occupants can now travel the roadway if they pay a toll, which varies based on the level of demand. Virginia sets the toll such that highway speeds remain at 55 miles per hour.
  • Single occupants to and from Dulles Airport were previously exempted from the HOV restrictions, but now they are not. A taxi with a passenger counts as an HOV.
  • Hybrid cars were once exempted from the restriction, but that provision expired in 2012. Prior to this, only hybrids with special plates issued prior to 2012 were exempt from HOV restrictions, but now no hybrids are exempt.
  • Heavy-duty trucks have always been excluded from using the roadway.

By and large, this represents a vast improvement in mobility for the region. The tolls encourage more carpooling, and drivers that were unable to access the roadway now have a choice to use it if they need it. Some drivers are negatively affected by the extended hours or if they happen to be driving themselves to or from Dulles during restricted times.

But the biggest outcry from drivers has been from higher tolls than what the public expected. During its first week of operation, peak travel time tolls reached close to $40 for the full 10-mile trip from the Beltway to Washington.

Unfortunately for those wishing for an inexpensive trip, those tolls are justified.

Tolling a roadway accomplishes two concurrent goals. First, it provides a revenue source to help pay for the roadway’s construction, maintenance, and operation. And in congested areas, tolls play an important role in managing demand. There is only so much capacity on roadways, and lower tolls would encourage more traffic and quickly clog up the freeway. Users would be paying to sit in a traffic jam.

Three main misconceptions cloud the public acceptance of the new I-66 tolls.

The first misconception is that the tolls are far more expensive than other roadways. For less than $40 (and much less in many instances), or $4 per mile, drivers from outside the beltway can cruise ten miles congestion free to downtown Washington during rush hour. Yet similar access points to other downtowns are similarly priced. The Lincoln Tunnel, connecting New Jersey commuters to Midtown Manhattan, costs drivers $12.50 for the 1.5 mile trip. The Golden Gate Bridge costs $6.75 to cross its 0.8 mile span. The Chicago Skyway costs $5 for its 8 mile route. And London charges drivers more than $15 to enter its downtown cordon, which is less than 4 miles across. In each of these other cases, there are no free parallel facilities and no exemptions for HOVs.

Second, this is not a new toll imposed on all Virginia drivers. The roadway has always had peak time restrictions, and fines for HOV violations were much higher than any tolls. Extending the hours into times when several hundred drivers were using I-66 prior may now forcee to either pay the toll or find a friend if they are to continue their commute patters – but the tolls in the early morning are much lower than the peak of the peak, and the inconveniences of a few hundred are a consequence of the limited capacity of the roadway network serving the 2.3 million people that live in Northern Virginia.

The final misconception is that lowering or capping the toll is good policy. In fact, while this would reduce the costs for some drivers, it would bring congestion back to the corridor, negatively affecting all users. Virginia needs to allow the price to fluctuate to match the demand and ensure that the corridor has free flowing traffic. Drivers need to adjust their commutes, and realize that an inexpensive I-66 will not work for the region.

Aside from not capping the toll and allowing a few weeks for the new commuting patterns to settle in, here are a few things that Virginia should consider to make transportation in the corridor more effective.

Experiment with reducing the target highway speed

Tolls prices are currently set to maintain vehicle speeds at 55 miles per hour. But research shows that highways have significantly more throughput (vehicles per hour) at speeds in the 40 to 45 mile per hour range. If the state reduced the speed limit to 45 miles per hour, the roadway might be able to accommodate 1000 or more vehicles per hour, thus lowering the toll and allowing more people to use the roadways. Virginia should experiment with variable speed limits and lower speeds to allow for the greatest use.

Increase the HOV requirement to HOV 3

The HOV 2 requirement is set to increase to HOV 3 in 2020. However, the high demand for I-66, as made evident by the current toll rates, means that the state could justify increasing the HOV requirement to 3 or more occupants sooner. This would encourage greater use of carpooling while also freeing up capacity for more toll paying users.

Invest in alternatives

Excess revenue from New York’s bridges and tunnels pay for subway service. London reinvests revenue from its congestion charge into the bus network. Surplus toll revenue on I-66 should be used to provide more alternatives to the residents and businesses in Northern Virginia. Better Metro service and improved commuter bus options can give those negatively affected by the extended hours some realistic options.

It appears the negative reaction to the tolls was driven by those simply hoping for a cheap alternative to drive downtown alone. Cheap, congestion-free alternatives do not exist, and you can thank the positive growth in Virginia’s economy for it.


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