Image by @salesgrlncity used with permission.

Solo drivers gained a new option on Monday to pay a toll to drive on I-66 in Virginia inside the Beltway, and the tolls hit $35-40 during morning rush hours. The reactions to this offer a window into the way people respond to prices, and what might happen if and when similar new toll lanes open around the region in the future.

Last week, only people in carpools with two people or more, drivers with an exempt hybrid vehicle, or people going to Dulles Airport could drive on I-66 inside the Beltway in the peak direction (eastbound in the morning, westbound in the afternoon) during peak times. Everybody else was banned, period, and had to use US-50, the GW Parkway, or another road.

This week, every solo driver also now has the option to drive on the road if they pay a toll. Hybrid folks and Dulles users also lost their privileges, and the hours of tolling were increased.

To many drivers' surprise, though, the tolls during rush hour were high, hitting $34.50 Monday morning and reaching $40 Tuesday. Some drivers took to Twitter (hopefully, after finishing driving since they were clearly solo) in a rage:

But here's the thing: Except for the hybrid and Dulles drivers (and scofflaws, I guess), nobody had to pay a $35-40 toll who was driving solo for free before. People who were totally banned from a road now could now use it at its busiest time, albeit at a high price.

Which would you prefer in general: Being forbidden from doing something at all, or allowed to do it at high cost?

Under standard economic theory, the latter should always be better. In the first scenario, you have one option: don't do it. In the second, you have two options, including the same option as before.

However, people's psychology doesn't always conform to the math. Here, despite many reporters' efforts to point out the facts, people are having a visceral reaction to seeing a sign with $35 or $40 on it.

Some were surprised more because they thought the tolls would be lower, and they had reason to think so:

Drivers who used to use I-66 outside the HOV restriction times, who now are reportedly sometimes seeing tolls in the $10-15 range, have more reason to be frustrated: Not only do they pay a new toll, but it may be double what officials had estimated.

Image by @_Bran_don used with permission.

Tolls become a political issue

Virginia Republicans are jumping on the issue in hopes of finding a political wedge issue to use against Democrats:

Some Democratic legislators are also criticizing the tolls, like newly-elected Prince William/Manassas Park delegate Danica Roem, who opposed tolls in the primary and criticized them this week.

(But, Roem is learning quickly and struck a more thoughtful tone after dialogue with constituents.)

The problem with the knee-jerk no-tolls platform is that its adherents aren't saying what they prefer instead. The tolls are high on I-66 because the road is mostly already filled up with carpoolers. It was crowded at the peak of rush hour last week, when no solo drivers were allowed. If we add solo drivers now, there can't be that many of them at all at the busiest times, or the road would get unbearably crowded.

The only options are:

  1. Keep the road HOV-only, period;
  2. Add lanes, which Arlington doesn't want and there's no money for (or would require high tolls to fund); or
  3. Have tolls like these.

This is what transportation costs!

The real reason there's sticker shock is that the real cost of road transportation is hidden from most voters. Gas tax money goes to states and the US Department of Transportation which flows back as what seems like free federal money to build a lot of roads. Meanwhile, every transit project has to scrimp for funds and deal with constant sniping from critics calling it a “boondoggle.”

I-66 inside the Beltway is already built and not adding new capacity, but Virginia is adding lanes outside the Beltway under a public-private partnership, and Governor Larry Hogan has proposed the same for nearly every Maryland highway. That's a really expensive proposition, and he'd prefer to make it sound cheap. But Ben Ross estimated that tolls would have to be at least $41 to pay off the costs of construction.

I haven't seen a lot of people citing Ross's numbers, but they should. After this experience in Virginia, that might be low!

Loudoun supervisor Matt LeTourneau pointed out on the Kojo Nnamdi Show that Virginia lawmakers might have made different decisions about the I-66 project had they known. For instance, the project cost $120 million, he said; maybe they wouldn't have spent that kind of money. Perhaps this can be a cautionary tale for Maryland, to at least go into any widening and tolling with its eyes open (or eschew the idea).

The government could theoretically go back to the 20th century model of taxing more and building more free transportation, but voters haven't shown much appetite for raising their taxes. This kind of transportation policy is the consequence.

Or, the region can help fix its transportation with better land use. I'll let Martin di Caro wrap up:

Martin, you're an expert now!

Update: It's also possible the tolls aren't calibrated correctly at all times. This doesn't change the fact that at rush, people went from “forbidden” to “expensive,” but perhaps “less expensive” is possible at some “shoulder” times:

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.