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Video: Northern VA Dems Hold Press Conference, Call for Suspension of “Highway Robbery” I-66 Tolls Until Issues Are Resolved

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A bit earlier this afternoon, several Northern Virginia Democrats – Senators Chap Petersen (Fairfax City, parts of Fairfax County), Jeremy McPike (parts of PW County, Manassas, Manassas Park) and Jennifer Wexton (parts of Loudoun and Fairfax Counties), Delegates John Bell (Sterling, Dulles, etc.) Jennifer Boysko (Herndon, Dulles, Chantilly), Wendy Gooditis (Leesburg, Ashburn, Middleburg, etc.) and Danica Roem (Manassas Park, Gainesville, etc.) – held a press conference (see video below) to demand that I-66 tolls (which Wexton called “highway robbery”) be suspended immediately, at least until issues they raised are addressed. What are those issues? Here’s a quick summary.

  • Del. Bell said the tolls are “serious impacts for working families in my district.” Bell explained that he had attended the VDOT sessions which spelled out the plans to transform I-66, and “tolls were described as being a maximum of $17, and that’s for round trip.” Instead, we’ve seen tolls a lot higher than that for one way, let alone round trip.
  • Del. Bell said the goal of 45 miles per hour has “now been lifted up to 55 [mph]” and that is “having a severe impact on raising the amount of tolls people are being charged.”
  • Del. Bell said that the deal was one lane being added inside the Beltway, but that won’t happen for two years, and “charging people a toll without adding capacity…is a serious problem.” Later, Bell said he might not be satisfied with any I-66 tolls under any circumstances – “these are like extra taxes to get back and forth to work…need to go back to the drawing board.”
  • Del. Boysko raised the issue of insufficient parking capacity, slug lines, etc., also the impact on working families who are struggling to get to work and the hybrid restrictions issue.
  • Sen. Petersen said he has generally been an opponent of I-66 tolling, but that he changed his position in 2016 to support this project based on promises for increased capacity (e.g., a new lane inside the Beltway). According to Petersen, the tolling should not have started before the improvements are made. Petersen asserted, “you can’t start charging people for lanes that were previously free” (I don’t get that argument at all, given that solo drivers were using I-66 during rush hour illegally before).
  • Sen. Wexton called the plan “highway robbery,” said her constituents have “very limited options” for west-east commutes. She added that the plan presented to the public, including promised improvements to I-66 and expanding HOV hours, is not the same thing as what we’re seeing now.
  • Sen. McPike said they are calling for an “immediate halt” to the tolling “until these issues are resolved.” According to Sen. McPike, “the capacity was supposed to be in place” BEFORE tolling began.
  • Nobody seemed to know why the tolling started now, as opposed to sometime in 2018. (my guess: Gov. McAuliffe wanted this to start before he left office, probably figuring this would be popular, which so far doesn’t seem to be the case!)
  • Del.-elect Roem mentioned the hybrid issue, the limited options for commuters in her district other than driving, the need for “a lot more options” so people aren’t forced to pay these tolls. However, as she pointed out, the current “commuter culture” is “very dependent on driving,” and there’s not the “slugging culture” seen on I-95. She said this is a “quality of life issue.”
  • What are the solutions to the I-66 corridor’s “traffic nightmare” if tolling isn’t? What I heard was increased bus service, increased lanes, increased commuter lots, etc.
  • Sen. Petersen said that elected officials were briefed “ad nauseum” in 2016 by VDOT, but “nobody was talking about this type of scenario” regarding how high the peak tolls have been. Petersen added that they thought they had a deal with the governor, but that this “got out of sequence” has left us in the current situation, with the question being “what are we going to do going forward?”

My view is that adding more asphalt is almost certainly not the answer, that what we need is a focus on smart growth/transit-oriented development, a dedicated funding stream for Metro that allows major improvements in commuter rail and bus, telecommuting and other options including bicycle lanes. But the bottom line is that we’re not going to fix a sprawl pattern of development overnight, if ever, as the model is inherently problematic (e.g., it was built at a time of cheap, seemingly limitless fossil fuels and minimal environmental concerns compared to today).

As for the complaints about solo drivers, who previously were using the I-66 HOV lanes illegally during rush hour, now having the OPTION to use them if they pay a toll, I don’t really get the problem there. Again, those folks were using the lanes illegally before, so now they have a new, legal option they didn’t have before. With regard to the tolls being too high, the problem is that if tolls are capped, they might not be high enough to keep traffic flowing, in which case it could be a “worst of all worlds” situation, in which people have to pay significant tolls but STILL are sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, not moving and sucking in exhaust fumes.

By the way, I wonder what Gov. McAuliffe – who touted this plan many times, very loudly and publicly – is thinking right about now, with just a few weeks left in his term.  I mean, if this thing goes down the tubes, that seems like it would be a major black eye for McAuliffe as he heads out the door…possibly en route to a run for president in 2020.

  • Penrosian

    Always good to have an issue like this once in a while to make it clear which electeds actually have progressive principles and which just say what they think people want to hear.

    • Allen Muchnick

      The populist demagoguery of the outer suburban legislators of both parties who seek to suspend, cap, shorten, undermine, or end the tolling reminds me of the “repeal and replace” Obamacare mantra of the Congressional Republicans. They are responding to the popular motorist resentment of paying tolls without offering a better alternative or even seeking to collaborate on implementing effective short-term fixes for their constituents.

      It’s long past time for NoVA to move forward, not backward, on regional transportation, by implementing innovative and effective alternatives to crippling traffic congestion and unsustainable, endless highway expansion.

  • Allen Muchnick

    People are overreacting to the initial high peak AM toll prices, especially those this Monday and Tuesday. While a certain percentage of motorists (or their employers) will routinely pay such high tolls willingly, many I-66 commuters will fairly quickly change their route, travel time, or travel mode to minimize their tolls. As more and more I-66 motorists modify their commuting behavior, the peak toll prices should moderate considerably.

    Those senators and delegates who were in office during the February 2016 I-66 ITB compromise agreement should not be surprised that the tolling would begin before the four-mile eastbound widening is completed, that the AM and PM HOV periods were both expanding from 2.5 hours to 4 hours, and that the hybrid exemption was ending.

    In fact, nearly all of that is clearly stated in the Governor’s 2/10/16 news release [ https://governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/newsarticle?articleId=14095 ] that announced the compromise: “dynamic tolling is scheduled to begin in 2017 during morning and evening
    rush-hours (5:30 am to 9:30 am eastbound and 3 pm to 7 pm westbound).
    Solo drivers can ride the lanes in exchange for paying a variable toll
    based on the distance they travel. Average toll is expected to be $6 a
    trip.”

    Elsewhere, this news release states: “The work to start widening of eastbound I-66 from the Dulles Connector
    Road to Ballston will commence this year with an environmental
    assessment. Construction work will start in 2017 and the new lane will
    be open to traffic in 2019.” Since, at that time, the tolling had been planned to begin in July 2017, the news release did not hide the fact that tolling would start about two years before the four-mile eastbound widening would be open to traffic.

    Over the subsequent 22 months, the VDOT project team regularly communicated the project development schedules for both the tolling gantries and the eastbound widening through multiple venues, so the claims that VDOT misled our veteran legislators are without merit.

    That said, the VDOT project team should have much better publicized and explained this project throughout its development as well as creatively establish, enhance, and promote ridesharing and slugging facilities throughout the corridor, to enable more ridesharing among I-66 commuters. During the 2015 public meetings for this project, I often sensed the potential for a public relations disaster, but I assumed the VDOT project team was somehow capable of miraculous public outreach. By effectively defending its tolling scheme with reliable data in the coming weeks, the VDOT project team can demonstrate its outreach competence.

    The fact that many Loudoun commuters already pay tolls on the Dulles Greenway and the Dulles Toll Road is a dubious reason not to toll I-66 ITB. Rather, it’s a compelling reason for Loudoun residents to form carpools, to share the burden of the first two tolls among multiple passengers and to allow driving toll-free on I-66.

    • dave schutz

      Allen, you and I are about nine tenths on the same page with your very nice comment. My comment will be about the other tenth, but in general I share your views almost exactly.
      I like the old line, “the perfect is the enemy of the good” – and this tolling project is good. Perfect, in my view, would be tolls – high ones – paid by all vehicles on 66, with no exemption for car pools. The goal in dealing with 66 should be to get the most people into and out of the District-Arlington conurbation at speed, flexibly and conveniently. We are wholly in agreement that the best way to do that is to encourage as many people as possible to be in multiple-passenger vehicles, and 60-passenger buses are better than 12-passenger vans are better than four in a sedan are better than one person driving alone.
      If I’m going to a one-off appointment at an accountant, or a doctor, in DC, it’s going to be difficult for me to form a car pool or get acquainted with a bus schedule. I will probably pop for a $20 toll, pay for parking when I get there, and grumble and bear it. That’s not a lot of the traffic, though. Most of it is regular commuters, and if there is a park-and-ride lot with low or no parking fee and the 12-passenger van means my split of the toll is a couple of bucks, AND I don’t have to pay for parking in DC – I’m good.

      • Allen Muchnick

        Dave,

        I agree that tolling every vehicle is much simpler and arguably fairer, but VDOT made the decision to not toll HOV vehicles in NoVA well over a decade ago, in part because of the preexisting network of I-395, I-95, and I-66 HOV facilities.

        • dave schutz

          Thanks. One argument I didn’t make clearly above is that tolling every vehicle, and with a fairly big toll, creates incentives for 3- and 4- member car pools (and the Rainbow Unicorn 12-person van pool of all our fevered dreams!) which the toll/no toll threshold at 2 members does not, even past the fact that the Uber driver makes is a car pool.

          • Allen Muchnick

            Excellent point, but the horse left the barn on that decision long ago. When the HOV threshold increases to 3 in 2022, HOV-2 vehicles will be charged a toll that the occupants can share.

  • Quizzical

    All these cries of outrage to me are a sign that our love affair with the automobile is as strong as ever. If you do the math, and figure in all the various costs of driving, including depreciation, few will find that driving into DC from outside the Beltway is cheaper than using bus and Metro. But people don’t want to calculate the costs. Now with the tolls, it is impossible to stay in denial.

  • SlugLines

    Tolling is hear to stay, all this press meet is going is just to subdue citizens concerns. As in I-95 corridor, pickup slugs and avoid paying toll. Join https://www.facebook.com/groups/I66Sluglines/ and download sluglines mobile app from https://sluglines.com/app to coordinate with other riders, https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/23b846e2a542563f9caa239712fa6c03ab3bb89ca6a543ab63e9111f355199d5.jpg