Transit takes a surprising toll on Northern Virginia commuters

Transit takes a surprising toll on Northern Virginia commuters

Our neighbors in Northern Virginia must feel like they are in the midst of an ongoing transportation “megaproject” dream, with the recent opening of the Metro Silver Line heavy rail system between Tysons Corner and Reston, Va., the newest expansion to the Metrorail system that first began service in the mid 1970s.

The Metrorail extension comes less than two years after the creation of the new 495 Express Lanes on the I-495/Capital Beltway between Tysons and Springfield, Va. – which we visited last year as part of our 2014 RTA Leadership Briefing and Tour – and the 95 Express Lanes that open next year between Stafford County and Alexandria, Va. on a reconstructed 29 mile stretch of portions of I-95 and I-395.

In terms of the Silver Line, The Washington Post has done a terrific job highlighting various elements of the new, $2.9 billion, 11 mile, 5 station heavy rail extension, including an interactive map, historical timeline, an overview of the origins of the station names, and even some points on rider etiquette. In addition, our chamber of commerce colleagues from Fairfax County, Va. have a nice point of view article about the importance of making strategic investments in regional transportation, as well as a word about federal surface transportation funding and policy reauthorization.

However, I want to discuss a different article about the Silver Line that recently appeared in the Post – one that can stimulate our thinking about transportation and funding, in particular for larger projects.

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The article I have in mind focuses on another major transportation corridor in Northern Virginia, the Dulles Toll Road, a turnpike freeway between Tysons Corner/I-66 and Dulles Airport. The Silver Line is largely in this toll road corridor, and the toll payers are now, by far, the primary funding source for building the Metrorail Silver Line.

I am not making this up.

And tolls have gone up – and up, and up – to help pay for the Silver Line.

Since 2009, on-ramp tolls on the Dulles Toll Road have doubled (from 50¢ to $1), while mainline tolls have more than tripled in five years, going from $0.75 to $2.50.

A common trip on the Dulles Toll Road might involve one ramp toll and one mainline toll payment, so we can say that typical one-way tolls have increased from $1.25 to $3.50 since 2009, representing a 180% increase in five years.

Nearly tripling toll rates in five years is an incredible level of toll increase under any circumstance, let alone in the middle of a recession, and for transportation improvements that, while they are in the corridor, do not directly serve the toll payers.

Tolls are slated to hold steady for a few years, but are projected to increase further, to $4.50 in 2019, and to $6 four years later.

In addition, the second phase of the Silver Line (to Dulles Airport and eastern Loudoun Co., Va.) is still under construction, so there is apparently at least some additional exposure risk. From the prior article in the Post (emphasis mine):

“Dulles Toll Road users are shouldering nearly half of the costs of Metro’s soon-to-open Silver Line, a far bigger share than originally predicted. Those drivers also face the biggest exposure for any additional cost overruns or delays on the rail line set to open July 26 — seven months late and $150 million over budget. Commuters are vulnerable because tolls are the one share of the Silver Line project’s funding formula that is not capped at a fixed dollar amount or percentage of the final tab.”

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Unlike the majority of the country, the states in the mid-South with existing turnpikes – Kentucky, Virginia, and Georgia – have largely abided by the principle of toll user pays, and that once a turnpike is paid for, the tolls shall end. The Kentucky statewide Parkway system, Georgia 400 in Atlanta, the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike and the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway are all examples of turnpikes where tolls have been removed once the construction bonds were paid back.

Here in North Carolina we are very new to the use of modern toll roads – while we did have private “plank” (wooden) toll roads in the mid 1800s, we were the final state touching the Atlantic Ocean to have a toll road during modern times, with our first turnpike, the 540/147 Triangle Expressway in our own Research Triangle market, having just opened in the past few years. Nonetheless, North Carolina’s statutory provision requiring toll removal was one of the primary selling points used to advance our region’s first toll road and to gain support for the entire NC Turnpike Authority toll program.

I mention the user pays, toll removal practice in the mid-South because as far as I can tell, there has been no significant public backlash in Northern Virginia due to tollpayers having to pay around 50% of total Silver Line rail project costs, which I find remarkable.

Or, perhaps that is one more piece of evidence that traffic congestion in Northern Virginia must be substantially worse than I recall from living there 20 years ago, and/or the remaining funding and project options were either more limited and/or politically even less acceptable.

On a related note, I have also not seen a lot of angst about the reality that, for at least some existing transit users who commute between Northern Virginia and Downtown Washington, D.C., the opening of a $2.9 billion rail extension means that their commute became both longer and more expensive, which is less than ideal.


In future blogs I will more to say about the topic of funding larger projects, including project goals and options, funding and financing alternatives, and opportunity costs and tradeoffs.

Little things mean a lot

Little things mean a lot

Turnpikes would get us moving again

Turnpikes would get us moving again