Tolls now in effect on I-66.  Image by sgcity used with permission.

Since tolling on I-66 began in December, there's been a lot of talk about how the new system is working — and how it is not. Changes are already being debated at this year's legislative session in Richmond.

The Virginia Department of Transportation began tolling I-66 between I-495 and Washington back in December. The tolls only apply one way — eastbound in the morning and westbound in the evening — and only apply to people driving by themselves. Before the tolls, people driving by themselves was not allowed at all, with a few exceptions. The new tolls also came with an expansion of the hours the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV, or any car with two or more people inside) and tolling rules were in effect.

The tolls change in price depending on how congested the road is. As more cars drive on I-66 the price of a toll goes up, so speeds stay relatively constant for everyone.

High toll prices garnered shocking headlines and a backlash

In the very first week, there were shocking headlines about expensive toll prices, sometimes as high as $40. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) pointed out those high prices only lasted for a few minutes at a time, but outrage was swift. Soon a group of lawmakers called for VDOT to suspend the tolls and restore the shorter HOV hours. VDOT held firm, saying that the system needed more time and that it was too early to make any bold changes.

Now with the Virginia legislature in session, there are a few proposals that tweak I-66 tolling. Dave LaRock, a Republican representing parts of Loudoun County, submitted a bill that would do three things:

  1. Cut the amount of time the tolling is in effect
  2. Set a monthly cap of $200 for individual drivers
  3. Require "reverse" commuters to pay a toll as well. (Reverse commuters are people who live in Washington or Arlington but work in places like Tysons or Reston.)

So far, only the latter two provisions have made it through committee. Some people lost out on driving for free when the HOV hours expanded, but the change was an important step to actually improving travel times along I-66. Before, I-66 got the most congested right when the roadway switched on or off from its HOV rules.

Travel times before and after tolling.  Image by Mike Grinnell.

Would the toll road still achieve its aim if this legislation were passed?

A cap on tolls is consumer-friendly, but Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue pointed out that adding it would just cause others to pay more. Once someone hits their limit for the month, there's no reason for them not to drive at the most congested times and that would raise prices for even more people.

The idea of tolling reverse commuters is not a new one — it was actually proposed in earlier plans but dropped after too much controversy. At the time, it was envisioned that tolls would be lower for reverse commuters. There are indeed backups in both directions, thanks to a combination of huge job growth in Fairfax County paired with more people wanting to live in more urban environments in Arlington or DC.

Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

LaRock's bill is still in committee, and it is unclear if it has a good chance of becoming law or not. The senate has just voted down its version.

A different bill that has a much better chance of passing is one that would reduce fees and change the rules on the EZ Pass Flex device. The EZ Pass flex device is what HOV riders use to tell the tolling technology that they should not be charged for a trip. Right now, if you go six months without using the HOV feature you are charged a fee. The new bill would change that to 12 months instead.

Despite all the talk and suggestions, VDOT is still holding firm on their plans and methodology. The new tolls have only been in effect for about two months now and VDOT says there is not enough data to make any big changes yet.

While $45 tolls still show up occasionally, VDOT says the average round trip toll through January 18 is $11.15. Trip times have decreased as well — which was a main goal of the project.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.