Would you pay a toll to enter downtown D.C.?

WASHINGTON – Driving to downtown D.C. could one day become more expensive for drivers – but not anytime soon.

The Transportation Planning Board issued a new report, “What Do People Think About Congestion Pricing,” which asks for the public’s opinion on express lanes and possible tolls to enter central Washington, D.C.

“Obviously a lot of people quickly start to think this is something similar to commuter tax and they quickly get to the question of how could you even implement this, given the District of Columbia’s unique position,” said John Swanson of the Transportation Planning Board, an author of the report.

“We put those issues aside, and I think people understand why you would do it. It made logical sense,” he said. “In central D.C., there are options like rail, buses and bicycles. If we had more funding, we could even make DC more multi-modal. So I think people found that it made sense, even if there were logistical issues.”

More than 300 people participated in public forums in Rockville, New Carrollton, Springfield, Chantilly and the District, where three scenarios were presented. One, the District could add toll roads or lanes like the Intercounty Connector (ICC) or the 495 Express Lanes. Another option suggests installing GPS devices in all vehicles and charge drivers a per-mile fee to replace the gas tax. The third possibility adds priced zones in central D.C., Tysons Corner and downtown Silver Spring.

About 50 percent of people who voiced their concerns to the public supported the idea of priced zones, also known as congestion pricing or tolling to enter an area, whereas 34 percent opposed the idea and the remaining 16 percent were unsure.

But charging customers to enter downtown D.C. doesn’t address greater, more regional problems.

“They felt it wouldn’t solve the region’s real congestion problems, which they see as being on the highways,” Swanson said. “We can price downtown D.C. and it may work, but will it get to the heart of the region’s transportation problems? Most people didn’t think it would,” Swanson said.

If it were done, Swanson suggests one option, which is similar to how tolls are assessed on the ICC or 495 Express Lanes. An overhead unit interacts with drivers’ E-ZPass transponders and charge them automatically. Drivers without an E-ZPass would receive a bill in the mail when a camera reads their license plates.

Opposition to priced zones in the District says tolls could negatively impact D.C. businesses and residents living in the area. People wouldn’t want to visit their friends or go to a restaurant or museum within the priced area.

“D.C. as a business location could become increasingly attractive because it would in fact be easier to get around and be more predictable,” Swanson said. “It would reduce congestion in central D.C.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a member of the Transportation Planning Board, said the idea of congestion pricing is one that the city needs to explore, but that it must be done correctly.

“The idea of tolling on neighborhood streets is unpopular and I don’t think it would be accepted here,” Mendelson said. “It doesn’t make sense to do that. But we need to look at the major arterials, like our freeways. Tolling on those roads would make sense.”

Mendelson said he likes the idea of using the 495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia as a potential model for the District, raising much needed revenue for the growing budget at the D.C. Department of Transportation.

He points out that there’s a lot of good work happening at DDOT, but people need to understand that road projects cost money. Mendelson refers to the tolls as a “user fee.”

“The easy places to [add tolls are] on freeways and highways like the 495s, the 695s, the 395s and the 295s. Those are the easy ones. A road classification below that becomes more controversial and may not be the way to go right now – certainly not on Connecticut Avenue or Wisconsin Avenue or Constitution Avenue,” Mendelson said.

It’s a trend commuters are already familiar with on the ICC, 495 Express Lanes, the upcoming 95 Express Lanes and possibly one day in the future to I-66.

“I don’t see it happening in downtown D.C. in our lifetime, but regionally on freeways, I think it will happen,” Mendelson said. “As we continue with the money crunch and the need to improve our transportation network, we will see increased tolling in the region.”

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