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The money Virginia officials stand to lose if changes are made to I-66 tolls

ARLINGTON — A state official warns any changes to toll collection on Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway could force changes to the highway improvement project taking place outside the ring road.

As part of the $3.5 billion effort to add E-ZPass toll lanes to I-66 between Gainesville in Prince William County and the Captial Beltway, the consortium building the lanes, I-66 Mobility Partners, gave $579 million in free money to the state to be used for transportation improvements.

The grant and the “outside the Beltway” E-ZPass toll lanes project are all predicated on tolls being collected on I-66 inside the Beltway, Nick Donohue, Virginia deputy transportation secretary told members of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission at its Jan. 4 meeting in Arlington.

“So the “outside the Beltway” [public-private partnership] contract includes a provision that will create a compensation event for the I-66 concessionaire [Express Mobility Parnters] where if the tolling hours or the HOV requirements are different than the 2016 compromise with the General Assembly, then they have the right to file the compensation that was likely would have some impact on that $578.9 concession payment that the commonwealth has received. I’m not in the game of speculating what that impact would be…,” said Donohue.

Without the tolls inside the Beltway, users would less likely to pay to use toll lanes on I-66 outside the Beltway because the trip would not be seamless, said Donohue. 

Express Mobility Partners told Potomac Local via email it has no comment on the matter. 

The specter of a “compensation event” is similar to a threat we heard from state officials this time last year when Prince William County Occoquan District Supervisor Ruth Anderson urged the Virginia Department of Transportation to extend a 4th southbound lane on I-95 from Route 123 to Prince William Parkway.

Donohue was appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and will continue to serve under incoming Gov. Ralph Northam. Donohue spent the better part of two hours Thursday taking questions, and in some cases taking fire for the conversion to tolls on I-66 inside the beltway that happened on Dec. 4, 2017. 

Now all drivers who use the portion of the highway between 5:30 a.m. to 9:30, and from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, must have an E-ZPass, pay a toll to use the lanes, or have two or more people in the car to ride free. In addition to briefing public officials in 2015 on the plan to add tolls the highway,  Donohue said it was the General Assembly in 2015 which made a compromise to change the “HOV” hours on the highway, expanding them and hour and a half in the mornings.

“A compromise was reached with the General Assembly. A compromise means 51 people agree with it, at least, it doesn’t mean 100 people in the House or 40 people in the Senate, but it does mean a majority agree to compromise,” said Donohue.

Commuters and politicians have complained about the expanded tolling hours on the highway by saying drivers now need to leave the house earlier to get to work earlier to avoid paying a toll to use the lanes. Donohue said the conversion was necessary to avoid congestion by those drivers who would jam the highway to beat the clock, to get on the lanes before restrictions took effect. 

“It’s something we thought was necessary to try to ensure the roadway never became severely congested as those of you know in Northern Virginia, when a road becomes that congested recovering is extremely difficult,” said Donohue. 

Donohue also took heat from the recently added Loudoun County representatives on the NVTC, who pressed him on how the HOV rules (two or more ride free) are being enforced. 

“One of the reasons why we were seeing such degradation of the average speed prior is change because there were so many violators on the road and enforcement was very spotty. Anybody who travels the corridor could beat it very easy and a lot of people did. Now I’ve got some colleagues, and hopefully, you won’t go searching in my office and where I work with, who are still traveling 66 for free with the flex transponder. They simply just button, turn it on, it and now they’re traveling at the rate of HOV except they’re not, and they’ve been doing it now for a month. and however long they have got caught…So what’s the answer? Is there some sort of technology that is going to be able to catch people because the heart hasn’t really happened,” said Loudoun County Dulles District Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau.

The state is aware that some people are cheating the system, and it’s something it will continue to look into, replied Donohue. He also noted that prior to the conversion to tolls on I-66 on December 4, 2017, the number of people who were illegally driving in the HOV-2 lane was significantly higher than the number of drivers illegally using the HOV-3 lanes on I-95 prior to its conversion to tolls in 2014.

A total of 17 drivers paid toll rates of $44 for a one-way trip on the lanes, and 29 people chose to pay $40. However, the average toll for the first two weeks of operation was $13.48, about $3 than the $17 cost that was estimated when politicians first learned of the changes in 2015.

Officials said it will take at least six months to accurately gauge traffic patterns and toll trends. NVTC asked Donohue to return in May to brief them again on travel in the corridor.

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