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Northern Virginia Democrats say halt I-66 tolls. VDOT says tolls are not as high as you think they are.

Left to right: Delegate John Bell, Senators Jeremy McPike and Chap Petersen.

So far, the McAuliffe administration’s response to outrageous tolls on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway has been: put another body in the car, chose not to pay the fee, and move on.

Those one-way tolls that reached $40 on the nine-mile stretch of highway from Dunn Loring to Washington, D.C. now rank as some of the highest in the nation.

“That response is part of the problem. People are adjusting their morning schedules to get to work early to get back home to their kids, or, in some cases, a second job, this sort of approach to say ‘they have their options,’ we’ll you just expanded 180 minutes a day available to these folks who are hard-working, and trying to get back home to their families. That’s just not fair,” said Virginia State Senator Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park)

The Democrats penned a letter to Virginia State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Lane and read a portion of it aloud outside the Northern Virginia headquarters of the state’s department of transportation Thursday afternoon.

Democrats say they were told the roundtrip tolls on the new I-66 E-ZPass Express Lanes inside the Beltway wouldn’t exceed $17 roundtrip, not $40.

A press release on Thursday seemed to indicate the Democrats were suffering sticker shock and that, on average, the price is lower than $17. 

From VDOT: 

“After nearly four full days of Express Lanes on I-66 Inside the Beltway being underway, the Virginia Department of Transportation reports that morning and afternoon commutes on Monday, Dec. 4, were faster than the same time last December.  The average round-trip toll price during peak hours was $14.50, with the average morning toll during peak hours of $10.70 and average afternoon toll during the peak hours of $3.80.  This toll rate during peak hours is lower than the estimated average toll rate of $17.00 during peak hours discussed in 2015…”

Though they were ‘briefed extensively” in 2016 on the project, according to Delegate John Bell (D-Loudoun, Prince William), they never heard anything about the time restrictions on the lanes being expanded in the morning and afternoon. They want them returned to the way the used to be a week ago before the E-ZPass requirement — vehicles with two or more occupants (HOV-2) ride free between 6:30 and 9 a.m., and 4 to 6:30 p.m.

They were also a promised the addition of new eastbound lane between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston before the start of tolls, they said.

The tolls took effect on Monday and required all drivers who use I-66 inside the Beltway between the 5:30 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. to have an E-ZPass. Single drivers pay a dynamic toll which changes depending on how many cars are using the lanes. Vehicles with two or more occupants ride free with an E-ZPass Flex.

Today, 16 Democratic legislators in McAuliffe’s party called for a halt to the tolling until a better deal can be worked out.

“You have to have new capacity before tolls being charged,” said McPike. “You want to see what you’re paying for.”

And, almost as if someone inside the VDOT offices was listening to him, the state agency announced — today — the awarding of a new contract to build that new lane.

From a VDOT press release:

On Thursday, Dec. 7, VDOT awarded an $85.7 million contract to Lane Construction Corporation of Chantilly to add an additional through lane along four miles of eastbound Interstate 66 between the Dulles Connector Road (Route 267) and Fairfax Drive (Route 237) in Fairfax and Arlington Counties.

The project includes ramp modifications at Exits 69 and 71, rehabilitation and/or repairs to bridges, construction of noise barriers eastbound and westbound and widening bridges and constructing a new grade-separated crossing of the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail at Lee Highway.

Additionally, an auxiliary lane will be added to the existing I-66 eastbound exit ramp and a slip ramp will be constructed from the I-66 eastbound exit ramp to the Route 7 southbound entrance flyover ramp, providing more direct access to the West Falls Church Metro Station Parking Garage.

The additional eastbound lane will be open to traffic in fall 2020 and the overall project is expected to be complete in fall 2021.

The Democrats also want the hybrid vehicle exemption restored so that drivers with clean, special fuel license plates can continue to use the lanes for free, as motorcycles do.  They also called for the construction of new commuter parking spaces along I-66 outside the Beltway, and new commuter bus service — all of which is planned as part of the separate I-66 outside the Beltway project started last month) before tolls are collected inside the Beltway.

But VDOT maintains it has already invested $10 million since July 2016 to fund as many “meaningful” multimodal transit projects to help commuters get out of the lanes and onto a bus. The move was designed to take cars off the highway to clear the way for those who wanted to pay to use the Lexus lanes.

From VDOT: 

The initial projects, which are in effect now, encompass Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Arlington counties and the City of Falls Church. Transit services include three new bus routes, increased service on two existing routes and last-mile connections to Metrorail stations, new bikeshare stations near Metro, as well as a new park-and-ride lot in Aldie that will support current and future bus service. Additional projects launched include real-time traveler information and transportation demand management services that provide incentives to use transit or carpools.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission has called for a new round of funding for transit projects that will be funded by the tolls being collected now on I-66 inside the Beltway. 

For drivers who travel from Leesburg, Ashburn, and Sterling, many of whom use the Dulles Toll Road, they already pay $18 in tolls before they ever get to I-66.

“Let’s call this plan what it is, the way that’s it’s been rolled out. It’s highway robbery,” said State Senator Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudoun, Fairfax) who represents the area.

If the Democrats are successful in convincing McAuliffe administration in halting the tolls, Potomac Local asked if those who have already paid into the toll system should get their cash back.

“I was afraid that question was going to be asked, and I think the short answer is to wait and take this piece by piece,” said State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) “I don’t know how much money has been collected, I don’t know if it’s in escrow, I don’t know what’s going to happen with it, but we need to take it piece by piece and the first piece is we need to suspend the tolls until we figure out what’s going on.” 

More from VDOT: I-66 E-ZPass toll lanes user stats collected on Monday, the first day of tolls: 

Further analysis of the Monday morning rush hours indicates the following:
  • A total of 13,473 vehicles used I-66 Inside the Beltway between the hours of 5:30-9:30am;
  • Of this total 5,082 or 38 percent were carpoolers who traveled free;
  • Only 39 vehicles, or 0.29 percent, paid the posted highest toll of $34.50;
  • 34 percent of vehicles paid less than $10; and,
  • Travel times were 10-12 minutes compared with 15-30 minutes last December.
Further analysis of the Monday afternoon rush hours indicates the following:
  • A total of 16,307 vehicles used I-66 Inside the Beltway between the hours of 3:00-7:00pm;
  • Of this total 4,964 or 30 percent were carpoolers who traveled for free; and,
  • Travel times were 10-12 minutes compared with 10-20 minutes last December.
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