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Express Lane Pricing and Politicians

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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)
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