During the Q&A at a presentation I gave in June, a questioner cited $40 tolls on the I-66 (inside the Beltway) high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes as an example of what driving would be like if tolling were more widely used. I had to explain to the largely non-Virginia audience why occasional peak-period I-66 tolls get that high—and why this situation is unique to this particular tolled roadway. The good news is that its average tolls this year are lower than last year, and rush-hour throughput has increased.
This 15-mile stretch of I-66 was built later than the rest of that Interstate due to fierce local (Arlington County) opposition to a new freeway. The final compromise that allowed it to be built limited it to two lanes each way (very low for an urban Interstate) and required it to be HOV-only during AM and PM peak periods—the only such urban Interstate corridor in the nation.
As the DC metro area is now well along in developing a regional express toll lanes network—especially with a $3.5 billion, 21-mile project under construction to add express toll lanes (ETLs) to I-66 outside the Beltway—Virginia DOT made the sensible decision to open the inside-the-Beltway segment of I-66 to paying customers. This converted it during peak periods from HOV-only to a HOT lane system instead. But unlike the HOV policy of the emerging ETL network, which permits only HOV-3s to go free, VDOT continued the pre-existing policy of HOV-2 for I-66 inside the Beltway, but promises to change this to HOV-3 once the outside-the-Beltway ETLs open in 2022.
The unfortunate result of this is that HOV-2s take up nearly a majority of road space on the inside-the-Beltway I-66, leaving far fewer spaces available for paying customers than would like to use it during rush hours. Basic supply/demand economics results in the price during certain time segments, especially in the morning rush, to be occasionally driven to $40 or above. Tolling opponents then take that price as typical, assume that a commuter uses that corridor twice a day 5 days a week, and is forced to pay $400 a week, or $20,000 a year. That’s a great propaganda technique, but is totally bogus.
Since we have ample data showing that most of those who pay to use HOT lanes and ETLs use them only occasionally, it is far more meaningful to focus on the average toll rather than the occasional peaks. On the I-66 HOT lanes last year, the average was $8.31 in the AM and $4.43 in the PM period. VDOT tweaked the tolling algorithm late last year to maintain a somewhat lower speed target, and as a result, for the first quarter of 2019 the AM average toll dropped to $6.35 and the PM average to $4.14. As word got around about lower tolls, more people tried using the lanes as paying customers, with morning trips up 11.1 percent this year and afternoon trips up 8.6 percent. Speeds are somewhat lower, but more people can use the lanes to save time, compared with alternative routes. There are still some tolls above $40, though, with 1,072 such trips in first-quarter 2019. With 13 weeks of 5 workdays each, that amounts to only 16.5 such high-cost trips per day. That’s how un-typical such extreme tolls are.
Incidentally, more space may be opened up for paying vehicles in the I-66 lanes, which would further reduce average toll levels. As of Sept. 30, the only “clean” vehicles allowed in HOV/HOT lanes without meeting the HOV occupancy requirement will be plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles; all others with clean fuel license plates will have to either pay the toll or meet the occupancy requirement.
This commentary originally appeared in the September 10, 2019 edition of Surface Transportation News.