Actually, I-66's Tolls Are Good, but They Could Be Better

Earlier this month, 16 Northern Virginia lawmakers joined commuters to express outrage over the cost of I-66’s new tolls, which open up the highway to solo drivers during rush hour. No one likes paying tolls, and short-term spikes have indeed been very costly — as high as $40 for the nine-mile trip from the Beltway to the Washington, D.C., line. But the change has actually worked as expected, allowing previous HOV drivers and new, toll-paying solo commuters to get to their destinations more quickly.

On balance, tolling I-66 is an improvement for Northern Virginia commuters. And there is at least one way we might be able to improve the new system.

Before December 4, only vehicles with two or more passengers were permitted on the highway inbound from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and outbound from 4:00 to 6:30 p.m. By paying the toll during a now-expanded rush hour period (5:30 to 9:30 a.m. inbound and 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. outbound), non-HOV drivers can once again access a major freeway 24/7.

In addition, the new rules accomplish several things:

First, by requiring all highway rush hour drivers to use EZ Pass, it is now easier to catch and fine drivers who drive alone without paying. Prior to the change an estimated 50 percent of outbound drivers during the evening rush hour were violating the rules and driving alone, as were about one-third of drivers traveling inbound during the morning rush hour.

Second, they lower travel times. Tolls are set to keep just enough drivers off the road to limit traffic congestion. Those who choose to use the highway can then travel at 55 miles per hour. Increases in traffic trigger toll increases, while reductions trigger decreases.

Virginia Department of Transportation data on travel times shows considerable improvement, falling from 15-30 minutes in December 2016 to 10-12 minutes. Average round trip tolls are estimated to be $14.50—but that includes drivers who use only a section of the highway to travel less than the full nine miles.

The tolling arrangement is win-win for a large percentage of I-66 commuters. HOV vehicles can continue to use the highway for free, and will likely experience less congestion. Solo drivers, who previously could not use I-66 at all during rush hour (at least legally) now have the option, for a fee.

That may still leave a segment of drivers worse off. Solo drivers who previously used I-66 for free just before or after the rush hour HOV restrictions, and who must now pay the toll. Some may gain more from the reduced congestion than they lose. Many area workers value their time enough to be willing to pay for a faster commute.

For people in this last group who simply cannot afford the toll, several options exist. They could use public transit, carpool, or drive on an alternate route. VDOT is funneling some tolls to improve bus service. More options could eventually mean less demand to travel on I-66 and lower tolls.

It is also important to consider what effect this change will have on commuters using nearby roads and highways. VDOT has acknowledged the importance of this question by monitoring traffic on those parallel roads. So far, they have found little impact.

In response to the cost and access concerns voiced by critics, it is worth discussing some ideas for improving the system.

Why not lower the target rush hour speed to 45 miles per hour, instead of the current 55? I-66 could accommodate more vehicles at this slower speed, which would make tolls more affordable and keep excess traffic from spilling onto nearby roads. In exchange, travel times would be only slightly longer.

The early returns indicate that variable tolls can help solve Northern Virginia’s severe congestion problems. It is better than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand rail transit systems that few commuters are willing to use. If tolls turn out to be higher than expected, that revenue should quickly be used to add additional highway lanes.