Opinion

OPINION | JASON S. MILLER

Higher tolls during rush hour? This is what one region has learned

Northern Virginia Express Lanes, including the I-395 extension opening fall 2019, provide free travel to transit buses, HOV-3 and motorcycles
Transurban
Northern Virginia express lanes charge single-occupant vehicles higher tolls during rush hour while allowing buses and higher-occupancy cars to travel free.

WASHINGTON

The Capital Region of Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond is the third largest economy in the United States, with a deep and diverse talent pool and unparalleled cultural assets. But like Boston, our aging transportation system risks holding back our economic potential. Years of underinvestment and limited coordination across our region’s jurisdictions have led to growing congestion.

The prosperity and success of our region’s economy are too important for us just to accept the status quo. That is why the Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of the leading CEOs in the region, is working to ensure our transportation system turns from a potential liability into a key asset that drives growth.

Any thoughtful transportation strategy requires investments across modes, but one key ingredient, particularly for longstanding urban centers, is to better utilize the existing roadway and highway network. Something that is gaining traction throughout our region is performance-driven tolling, a tool which, when deployed correctly, results in less congestion, faster speeds, and more predictable travel times. It does that by charging a variable fee based on the level of congestion on roads and allows high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs) to drive for free. This creates an incentive for consumers to divert trips to nonpeak periods, carpool, or opt for public transportation.

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As leaders in both Boston and New York City debate whether to implement lane-based and zonal-based congestion pricing, we can share what we’ve learned since performance-based toll lanes were introduced, in 2012, on Northern Virginia’s express lanes on the Beltway, and more recently on I-95, I-395, and I-66.

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In Virginia, the primary focus of the tolls is not to raise revenue, but rather to provide better options and improve the efficient movement of people and goods. By using the power and simplicity of pricing a portion of the roadway capacity, ranging on average from $4 to $8 for the Beltway, I-95, and I-66, performance-driven tolling provides commuters with a reliable trip option on what were once congested, traffic-choked corridors.

Tolls are generally highest during morning and evening rush hours.There has been much attention to the fact that tolls on I-66 and I-95 can exceed $45 a trip for single-occupant drivers that drove the entire length of the toll road. The reality, though, is that few pay tolls at that level, with just 0.1 percent of single-occupant drivers choosing to pay more than $40 last year on I-66.

And the results are clear.The express lanes on the Beltway have saved the average commuter more than 25 minutes each way, and more than 100,000 HOV commuters and bus riders benefit from the faster travel of the toll lane free of charge every day.Similarly, on I-66, inside the Beltway, speeds have increased by more than 20 percent over the past year for all vehicles, and toll revenues have supported new or expanded bus service. Performance-driven tolls from I-66 alone have raised about $17 million for public transit service.

It’s fair to say there was some skepticism about performance-driven tolling before it was put in place. But commuters and employers have now seen the benefits. Vehicles with multiple passengers travel for free. Riding the bus has become a more attractive option, since buses are no longer stuck in traffic.

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Performance-driven tolling has made our road network both more efficient and more equitable than the clogged roads that drivers and bus riders once begrudgingly accepted as a fact of life. We still have more to do, but our transportation system now works better for everyone, including commuters who don’t use transit but who now benefit from the option of a congestion-free trip when needed.

Now business and community leaders are advocating for the broader deployment of a regionally coordinated performance-driven tolling system that spans the Potomac River and makes the most of our limited road space on key corridors across Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. That was one of the key recommendations from the Greater Washington Partnership’s Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility – an employer-driven strategy to prioritize smart investments and policies that, if executed, would result in better connectedness, more options, and faster commutes.

The regional performance-driven toll network concept also has bipartisan support, including from Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia and Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland.

There is no silver bullet to improving the region’s transportation system. However, properly pricing our congested roads to best manage demand and improve connections and options is proving to be a critical piece of an effective transportation solution set.

Even though Boston may have fallen short in the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters, solving roadway congestion remains critical to future growth. Take a lesson from the Capital Region — which is better prepared to welcome Amazon’s expansion to Virginia’s National Landing because of our ability to deliver bold transportation plans.

Jason S. Miller is CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership.