Thoughts on the latest proposals to adjust Northern Virginia's I-66 tolls

By Michael A. Spotts, President

The recently-instituted tolling policies on Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia have generated a lot of controversy since they were instituted. The old system in which only carpools, buses, and motorcycles were allowed on the route during the 2.5 hour rush hour was replaced with dynamic tolling over a four hour rush hour. The carpools, buses, and vans still use the road for free, but single-occupancy vehicles are charged a toll based on the level of congestion. As users have adapted to the system, periodic spikes in tolls have generated headlines, including the one I commented on via Twitter this morning (full thread below). As I explain, the tolling system is a good idea, but to make it sustainable (from both the financial and political perspectives), we need to also look at our land use and affordable housing policies to ensure that people actually have a choice to avoid the tolls but living in more centrally located and transit-served communities. 

A thread by Michael Spotts via Spooler

I understand that the $47 1-way tolls capture interest, but if you're going to lead with that, perhaps you shouldn't wait until the end of the article to say that the average round trip toll is $12.65 (…)

2- The tolling is painful, but necessary. Just a reminder, single-occupancy vehicles were not allowed at all on I-66 prior to rush hour pre-tolling. HOV is still free.

3- And w/respect to the comments about the lack of transit from Prince William & Loudon, that's a multifaceted issue, with some legitimate points, and some less so

4- There's a portion of the exurban population that truly cannot afford to live in DC or the inner-suburbs. They'd prefer the short commute, but housing costs are too high.

5- So that's on us in the inner jurisdictions for not permitting/investing in a wider range of housing choices - including family-size units.

6- But the reality is that a lot of people's discretionary preference is to live further out. Some are wealthy. Others are less-so, but valued a larger yard and more square footage (at a lower per sq ft price) when they moved out there.

7- The lack of transit in the exurbs and the traffic into DC is notorious, and should catch no one by surprise. While I understand why they are upset, we need to take that discretionary choice into account when making policy

8- Because the truth is, the previous, toll-free status quo can't work anymore. Infrastructure is too costly to continue to subsidize inefficient versions to the extent we have in the past. So what do we do moving forward?

9- In a micro sense, the proposal to lower the average speed in the algorithm makes sense. You're still pricing adequately, and allowing people to decide if the extra commute time is worth it to them.

10- But from a macro sense, we need to address the issues of the 2 cohorts from tweets 4 & 6 separately. For the 1st, we need zoning reform to create more centrally located family sized units & more affordable housing investment.

11- We need to make exurban living a choice, rather than a necessity. And in the meantime, we can do things to improve carpooling options, transit, and perhaps even a measure of means testing for the tolls for the lowest income commuters

12- And for the cohort for whom it was a discretionary choice, we need to stand firm with user fees (without price gouging), but do so more broadly, so that certain commuters pay their way while others continue to be indirectly subsidized. /end