Express Lane Pricing and Politicians

Controversies over the performance of relatively new express toll lane (ETL) projects are still simmering on both coasts, with Seattle and northern Virginia as cases in point. In the first, the year-old ETLs on congested I-405 face possible legislative termination for not quite meeting promised performance improvements. And just about every reader of this newsletter has heard about last month’s outrage over $40 tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway in northern Virginia. In both cases, the outrage was far from justified.

The I-405 case involves the conversion of an existing HOV lane each way to an ETL, with an additional priced lane added for the majority of the corridor. In approving the project, legislators gave the project conditional approval: unless it met two key performance metrics in its first year, the tolls would be removed. Those were:

  1. Generating enough revenue to pay all the ETL operating costs; and,
  2. Maintaining the federal minimum of 45 mph at least 90% of the time during peak periods.

Demand for congestion relief has been so high that condition #1 has been easily met. But condition #2 has not quite been achieved. Though the lanes are doing much better than when they were HOV, the 45 mph target was met only 85% of the peak time northbound and 78% southbound. So opponents are calling for termination.

A report for the Washington Joint Transportation Committee, by University of Minnesota researchers (January 8, 2017), identifies the culprit. The legislature also put a $10 ceiling on the peak toll rate. As the report notes, “the toll algorithm and pricing is not controlling input traffic along the ETL effectively, which in turn can result in too many vehicles in the ETL, unmanageable congestion, and ETL breakdown.” The near-term fixes include a more-responsive dynamic toll algorithm, extending the AM peak to 10 AM (from the current 9 AM), and yes, increasing the maximum toll rate! It remains to be seen if these sensible recommendations will be accepted, saving the project from termination. [Disclosure: I was a member of the Washington State DOT Expert Review Panel that recommended implementation of this project back in 2010.]

In northern Virginia, by contrast, there was no ceiling on dynamic toll rates, and when motorists who had been forbidden to use I-66 during peak periods (only HOV-2s were allowed until now) finally had the option of paying to use it, so many tried to do so that the peak toll for a short period on the first day did reach $40. Politicians immediately cried foul, citing predictions by Virginia DOT that round-trip tolls would be about $17. Legislators and local officials of both parties denounced VDOT and the governor, and called for cutting back or eliminating the tolls.

Fortunately, cooler heads at VDOT and the governor’s office prevailed, and were supported by a strong editorial in the Washington Post (December 10th): “Virginia Should Stick with its I-66 Express Lanes—Tolls and All.” And once the first day’s frenzy passed, and drivers figured out how the system worked, VDOT put out actual data on first-day tolls. The average AM peak-period toll was $10.70, and the average PM peak period toll was only $3.80. Thus, the average round-trip toll was $14.50—which is lower than VDOT’s projected round-trip average of $17.00.

With the situation calmed down by early January, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission rejected a motion by one of its members that would have mandated lower rates, and simply called for VDOT to evaluate the system’s performance and report to the board by late spring.

As the Washington Post‘s editorial board wrote, the tolling system “is doing exactly what it set out to do”—limiting the number of vehicles using I-66 during peak periods to an amount consistent with relatively uncongested travel. And in very high-demand corridors, an arbitrary cap on toll rates would undercut that powerful mechanism for congestion relief. Let’s hope Washington State legislators get this message on I-405.

(This article first ran in the January 2018 issue of Surface Transportation Innovations)

Email this author

About Bob Poole

Bob Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the previous four presidential administrations on transportation and policy issues.
This entry was posted in Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Express Lane Pricing and Politicians

  1. Bonnie Betts says:

    That’s great that you think the “average” toll is $10.70. Does that include 3am? Most people are only concerned with the rush hour(s) rates. What you fail to mention is that the I-95 HOT rates are also ridiculously high. Just 6 months ago I was paying $28 from Springfield to Stafford on a regular weeknight basis any hour between 4:30pm and 7pm. I did that for 8 months straight then quit that job. Are you telling me that after 8 months of highway robbery, the rates have subsided on I-95 HOT?

  2. Juan Frijoles says:

    We need to get rid of the thought process of penalizing people for travel and come up with a better solution that actually solves the problem for everyone. Tolls are idiocy masquerading as “solutions.” Both the idiots that came up with the idea and those that still think it is a great idea need to be removed permanently from any influence on anything governmental ever again. It’s like paying an insurance company for data breaches in the state. A breach happens and the insurance pays out – meanwhile the citizen has lost their information to some malicious actor/entity while footing the bill for “insurance” that did nothing for anyone but make people feel like something good happened. How about stopping the data breaches from ever occurring. And so the idiocy continues with OPM (other people’s money) meaning steal from the citizen to pay for idiocy and for the idiots that come up with the idiocy. Maybe that’s why Jefferson said a little revolution every now and then is good because it gets rid of these idiots.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *