WASHINGTON — The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a plan Wednesday that will bring a tolling system to Interstate 66 at rush hour, allowing solo drivers to use the lanes legally during restricted periods for the first time, and leading to renewed questions and interest from WTOP listeners.
Here are some answers to questions submitted to WTOP:
Q: When exactly will the tolls be in place?
A: The tolling system is scheduled to be up and running in mid-to-late 2017. Once it goes live, drivers with at least one other person in the car will continue to travel for free at any time of day. Drivers who are alone will have to pay a toll that varies based on the congestion in the lanes in order to maintain a speed of at least 45 mph. The concept is the same as the 95 Express Lanes, where tolls rise to discourage drivers from entering the lanes when they are crowded, and fall when the lanes are less crowded.
The HOV and tolling rules would be in effect from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in the eastbound direction and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the westbound direction.
Today, HOV rules only apply for two and a half hours each day in each direction.
Q: Will people going in the reverse commute direction have to pay a toll or meet HOV requirements?
A: Plans to include a toll on reverse commuters were scrapped after public comments against the idea. The change means that triggers for widening of Interstate 66 eastbound between the Dulles Connector Road and Ballston can only focus on the status of the road during the morning commute.
Q: Will any money go toward I-66 improvements?
A: All money from the inside the Beltway tolls beyond the cost of operating and maintaining the system is required by law to benefit toll-paying users of the road. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration estimates that the tolls will draw $18 million in gross revenue during the first full year of operation in 2018, which should translate to about $8 to $10 million in revenue for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to assign to projects such as park and rides, improved bus service or carpooling and road improvements in the corridor.
Under the agreement between the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the NVTC, some of the revenue is expected to be used later to widen I-66 eastbound to three through lanes from the Dulles Connector to Ballston. The agreement delays consideration of that widening until the early 2020s.
Q: Will I have enough time to get off 66 for another route after seeing the toll price if I think it is too high?
A: Like on the 95 and 495 Express Lanes, signs will show the toll rates to several destinations such as Ballston, Rosslyn and the D.C. line. Drivers will likely be able to exit onto the Beltway if the toll is higher than they are willing to pay. Like the existing Express Lanes, the price will be based on the distance traveled as well as the level of congestion.
Q: Will I still be able to drive alone to Dulles Airport during the restricted periods?
A: VDOT plans to remove the exemption to HOV restrictions for drivers going to Dulles Airport.
Q: Will hybrids have to pay the tolls or will they be exempt?
A: The hybrid exemption is already scheduled to be phased out for the corridor because of the consistent traffic, and this plan would specifically put an end date for it. VDOT Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick has included phasing out the exemption as a way to help improve traffic flow during HOV hours. The federal government has some oversight of the road’s performance during HOV periods, so a plan to speed up traffic flow is required.
The hybrid exemption generally does not apply in the toll situations that have been set up so far in Virginia, and Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne has said it would also not apply at any point to the new HOT (HOV or Toll) lanes being constructed outside the Beltway.
The outside the Beltway plan is proceeding separately, with the two new Express Toll lanes in each direction scheduled to open around 2021 if the schedule remains on track. VDOT plans to award the outside the Beltway contract as a full public-private concession in the same way the 95 Express Lanes were constructed. There would be no limits on improvements to parallel roads.
Q: “Can you help me understand exactly what areas this affects? I travel in from Woodstock and get off at Route 50. I’m driving in around 5:20 a.m. and leave at 3:30 p.m. So, will there be tolls in this area or is this further east? Is it a full $17 a day?”
A: The $17 per day number was a combination of the highest rate expected in the morning (which would probably be well after your trip) and the highest rate expected in the afternoon (which again would likely be later than your trip).
If you get off at Route 50 — you would not be driving through the area where the just-approved tolls are going to be anyway. The tolling plan approved Wednesday focuses only on the portion of I-66 inside the Beltway, and will only apply at rush hour (four hours in the morning heading eastbound and four hours in the afternoon heading westbound). Just in case you change your commute between now and the start of tolls in a year-and-a-half to two years, the lanes will be free for anyone with two or more people in the car. It will go up to three or more around 2021 to coincide with a regional plan and match the new lanes that will be added outside the Beltway.
The supporters of the plan would say you may still see benefits from the changes though since some of the money is scheduled to be used along the entire corridor as needed to boost commuter bus service, park and rides and carpooling, which could get cars off the roads.
If you don’t end up getting a new commuter bus option that works for you, you’ll see a more direct impact down the line from the plans for 66 between Gainesville and the Beltway — they’re going to add two new HOV or toll lanes in each direction there. Those will be enforced 24/7 — free for three people in the car with an EZPass Flex switched to the HOV position or open to anyone willing to pay the variable toll that will be displayed on overhead signs like the 95/495 Express Lanes.