Thursday, September 13, 2007

Greenway Tolls to Go Higher

The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved a revised toll structure for the privately owned Dulles Greenway that raises the maximum base toll ceiling for cars from $3 to $4. The modified toll structure is effective October 1. However, the new maximum allowable toll will not be reached until 2012.

The Commission is also permitting the owners, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, L.P. (TRIP II), to implement congestion management price premiums. The maximum base toll can be increased by about 20 percent for weekday traffic traveling in the peak period direction. The Commission said, “The introduction of congestion pricing to the toll structure will promote the efficient utilization of the Dulles Greenway.”

The Commission order does not mandate toll increases, and the toll ceiling will be phased-in over a five-year period. TRIP II may implement tolls lower than the ceiling, make adjustments on different dates, or adjust tolls to deter migration from the Greenway.

TRIP II’s audited financial statements indicate that it has experienced losses for every year since 1993 when roadway construction began. The Commission wrote, “We have no credible evidence challenging the accuracy of financial data.”

Recognizing that TRIP II’s interest expense alone has exceeded its total revenues over most of the years it has operated, the Commission said, “This is hardly a ‘cash cow’ enterprise, nor ‘highway robbery’ as some of the public witnesses have asserted.”

The record before the Commission supports a determination that the level of tolls will, as required by Virginia law, provide TRIP II with no more than a reasonable return while not discouraging use of the Dulles Greenway.

According to the Leesburg Today newspaper, the first increase - to $3.40 from the current $3 toll with the ability to charge $4 at rush hour - would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2009. The next increase to $3.70 would take place no earlier than July 1, 2010, with the ability to charge $4.50 at rush hour. The final increase to $4, and $4.80 at rush hour, cannot occur earlier than Jan. 1, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that when the Greenway opened in 1995, it was envisioned as a luxurious alternative to side roads clogged with stop-and-go traffic such as Route 7. But as Loudoun's population has blossomed, it has become an essential thoroughfare connecting dense neighborhoods in eastern Loudoun to job centers along the Dulles corridor and in Fairfax County and Tysons Corner.

The Post further noted that in its 10-page order, the Commission said that the increase could be a hardship for drivers who use the Greenway daily. But members said their hands were tied by the 1988 state law that authorized construction of the Greenway, the state's first private highway to be built since the Civil War. "Almost 20 years ago, the Commonwealth made a series of policy decisions that leave us little choice but to make the decision we make in this case," the order said. Under the law, Toll Road Investors is allowed to increase tolls under three conditions: if the new fee does not significantly discourage drivers from using the road, if the company does not make an undue profit from the higher charge and if the benefit of using the road matches its cost.

And according to an article in the Washington Examiner, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose district includes the toll road, said “There are times I will not ride the Greenway and will take Route 7 to save money. If the tolls are going up higher, more people are going to get on Route 7 and Route 50. We are making those roads more congested. The General Assembly needs to go back and change this bad law.”

The Dulles Greenway is a 14-mile limited access highway between Washington Dulles International Airport and Leesburg. Authority to construct and operate the road was granted by the Commission in 1990. There was general support favoring the project since there were no plans to build the facility with public funds. At that point in time the situation presented was that if a private toll road were not built, there would be no road at all.

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