No bad deals: Virginia’s strategy for the I-66 toll deal

WASHINGTON — New express toll lanes on I-66 between the Beltway and Gainesville, Virginia, are expected to open in 2022. And Virginia’s top transportation official is singing the praises of the public-private partnership agreement reached this week that will make it happen.

“The Governor made it clear he would rather have no project than a bad deal, and I cannot overemphasize the ability for us to negotiate from that position,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Thursday in Richmond.

Layne spoke before Virginia’s Transportation Public-Private Partnership Advisory Committee.

Layne said the deal with a bidding team of companies called Express Mobility Partners is great for the commonwealth because the team has agreed to finance the entire project, with no cost to taxpayers.

The companies have also agreed to give Virginia a check for $500 million.

Layne said he expects people to ask if the tolls would be lower if the state did not accept that check.

“The answer is no, because this is dynamic pricing,” he said. “The tolls are based on a flow of traffic,” he said.

And what happens if the companies can’t make their debt payments?

“What they would lose is their equity, plus the $500 million they’ve given the state,” Layne said. “But the state would have performance bonds if they defaulted during construction to complete the construction.”

The deal allows the private partners to collect tolls for 50 years, and Layne told the committee he doesn’t care how much money the companies make.

“I hope they make (a) gazillion dollars, because I know they have done it cheaper for the state than we can do it ourselves,” he said. “And I’ve always said I’m not counting their money, I’m just counting the taxpayers’ money.”

Layne said the agreement, which will be signed soon, will eventually need adjusting, thanks to self-driving cars.

“Autonomous vehicles are going to come in. What’s that going to do to the revenue stream?” he said. “Nobody contemplated that. We need to sit down and figure that out. But as equal partners, that’s the way you do it.”

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