E-Z as Pie? Not Really.

Brace yourself for a slew of new toll roads in Virginia. E-ZPass will make it a breeze to pay the tolls, but it won’t ease the suspicion that people in “other parts of the state” are getting a sweeter deal.by James A. Bacon

Between the 495 Express Lanes project and the Downtown/Midtown Tunnel, Virginians will be paying a lot more in tolls by the end of the year. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that 400,000 new drivers will enroll in the E-ZPass electronic-payment system, compared to 900,000 presently, and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton wants to make sure that VDOT can accommodate the surge.

Virginia already allows motorists to set up E-ZPass accounts and order the transponders online. But VDOT hopes to supplement that distribution with a retail distribution network that includes the Division of Motor Vehicles, big-box stores and other outlets.

Hampton Roads drivers are expected to start paying tolls on the Midtown Tunnel, Downtown Tunnel and Martin Luther King Boulevard by the third quarter this year, while Northern Virginians will require the transponders to use the tolled HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway by the end of the year. Never before has VDOT had to distribute so many transponders in such a short time frame. “It will be a significant challenge to get that many transponders to the public,” said Virginia Highway Commissioner Gregory A. Whirley at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board today.

Connaughton expressed concern that VDOT does not yet have vendor contracts in place to deliver 400,000 transponders nor the retail network to distribute them. Having the electronic payment system in place is critical for a smooth launch of the multibillion-dollar public-private partnerships in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, he said. “If we don’t get this right, it will be a black mark.” He told VDOT officials that he expects monthly updates on E-ZPass at future meetings.

“It’s all underway,” John Lawson, VDOT’s chief financial officer, assured him.

VDOT will get help from its private-sector partners, Transurban-Fluor in Northern Virginia and Elizabeth River Crossings in Hampton Roads. Both public-private partnership (P3) operators would prefer to collect their tolls electronically rather than resort to other means such as tracking down motorists on the basis of license-plate images captured by video cameras. The administration costs for E-ZPass are far lower than the alternatives, which means lower costs for drivers and less hassle for the franchise operators.

Transburban-Fluor plans a major roll-out when the HOT/HOV lanes open for business in December, said Jennifer Aument, vice president-corporate relations for Transurban USA. 495 Express Lanes will have to educate drivers about new traffic patterns, who gets to use the express lane for free (buses, vans, carpools), who has to pay, and how to sign up for the transponders. The partnership expects to unleash a promotional campaign that includes ads in the Washington Post, 100 delivery trucks acting as mobile billboards, festival promotions and meetings with targeted stakeholders.  The company has developed the graphics for fliers and other collateral material and has developed a core message, “It’s time to change lanes.” Of course, she added, the roll-out will be Tweeted.

495 Express Lanes hopes to generate 400,000 customer interactions by March 2013 and to convert them into 100,000 transponder sign-ups.

Likewise, Elizabeth River Crossing (ERC) has created a tolling strategy and marketing plan, which it has submitted to VDOT for review, said Greg Woodsmall, interim CEO of the partnership. ERC has a tougher job than Transurban and Fluor, however. No one will be forced to pay the HOT lane tolls on the Beltway; drivers can continue using the old Beltway lanes at no cost. By contrast, commuters using the Norfolk-to-Portsmouth tunnels will start paying tolls for tunnels that they are accustomed to using for free — before the improvements are even completed. Hundreds of citizens gathered in Portsmouth recently to protest the tolls, and scores offered to join as plaintiffs in a lawsuit expected to be filed by next week.

Some 10% to 15% of Hampton Roads drivers already have E-ZPass. ERC’s goal is to get that number to 50% when the tolls are put in place, and eventually to 90%, said Woodsmall. Reaching the 50% goal will require distributing 80,000 transponders. Toll payers will be required to pay VDOT $35 up-front, which includes the cost of the transponder and a credit toward use of the tolled facilities. When the credit is used up, VDOT will draw from the driver’s bank account and/or credit card. “It’s a tough sell to charge for an advance payment,” acknowledged Woodsmall. ERC will offer an alternative — paying for each use of the facilities in a “pay by plate” arrangement. But that entails a lot more administrative work, and the charge can be three times the transponder fee, or nearly $5.

Discussion of the tolling technology stimulated a variety of comments. Dana Martin, the Salem transportation district representative, said that the “photo enforcement” of the Hampton Roads tolls would unfairly punish drivers from outside the region — in Charlottesville or Lynchburg, say — who have no tolls and no reason to acquire a transponder. Why should they have to pay three times as much as locals do?

That inspired a response from Shep Miller, an urban at-large representative from Norfolk, who said, “At least you don’t have to pay every day just to get to work!” Miller elaborated in later remarks, saying that paying $900 a year in tolls to get to work represents a genuine hardship for someone making $15,000 a year.

Connaughton leaped into the fray, asking, “What’s the situation you have today?” Commuters spend a half an hour daily stuck in traffic at the two Norfolk-to-Portsmouth tunnels, he said. His implication was that paying the tolls was preferable to sitting idle in traffic.

Miller retorted that when the state fixes “other peoples’ problems” in other parts of the state, it doesn’t slap tolls on the projects. Other CTB members joined in, decrying how different regions of the state are treated differently when it comes to paying tolls. Then Jim Rich, Culpeper district representative, quipped that the state was welcome to take back the $244 million committed to the Charlottesville Bypass — which he opposed — to buy down tolls in Northern Virginia and Norfolk.

In the end, Miller agreed that the McDonnell administration has no choice but to create toll-driven projects in a political environment in which Virginia legislators are unwilling to raise the motor fuels tax, or even to adjust it for inflation. Said he: “The problem is that previous administrations did nothing for so long, there is no alternative.”

Update: Here is Debbie Messina’s story in the Virginian-Pilot.

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  1. Darrell Avatar

    50%? I know alot of people who won.t be buying a transponder, including me.

  2. People know I’m a supporter of tolls for a number of reasons not the least of which it is, in fact, the best user-fee where a specific user pays for his/her use of a specific roadway.

    but I’m also an observer of the public’s reaction to tolls and it’s pretty clear that opposition is significant – although as most polls continue to show – opposition to increased gas taxes is even higher.

    but always find this sentiment: ” Miller retorted that when the state fixes “other peoples’ problems,” it doesn’t slap tolls on the projects. Other CTB members joined in, decrying how different regions of the state are treated differently when it comes to paying tolls.”

    …. pretty amazing……

    the “state” does not fund roads – taxpayers do.

    but that knowledge does not deter the thinking because the argument then switches to “my area deserves more funding than other areas”.

    Here’s what is missing. As long as Virginia does not provide a true accounting of how much each region generates in fuel taxes – people are not going to know just how little we actually pay in gas taxes verses the costs of major new infrastructure like bridges and tolls.

    Without that info, people continue to live in denial about the realities and continue to believe what they wish to believe no matter the realities.

    I wonder what folks down that way will do if VDOT just walks away from the tolls and let’s that region figure out what to do. After all, the DO have at least two regional entities – an MPO and a Planning District.

    The irony here is that the other major region in Va – NoVa ..those folks ALSO believe that they are being treated unfairly with tolls on the beltway and I-95 and they also believe that they deserve more funding even if it comes at expense to other regions of the state.

    Again, I am convinced that as long as people do not know the simple facts about how much their region generates in gas taxes – and how that money gets spent for current maintenance and operations – they have no clue how much is left for building more infrastructure much less any real appreciation for just how expensive that infrastructure is – relative to the amount of available funds from gas taxes.

    These are, the same folks who vote in elections and ignorance on the issues is obviously no deterrence to who or what they vote for or against.

  3. oh.. and did I mention.. that most of the folks that are vociferously against tolls …they truly expect and want “big govt” to provide them with roads …even as they rail against “big govt” when it comes to stimulus, tarp, ObamaCare, etc.

    So.. it’s clear – we need a hard core skin-flint type leader who will let the poor and elderly die in the streets (especially if they have any connection to unions) – but he will provide all the “free” tunnels, roads and bridges …and military jobs that our hearts desire.

    LORD help us.

  4. Here’s my question – for NoVa and Hampton Roads (and any other areas)

    how should roads, bridges, tunnels that you need in your area be funded and built?

    answers that claim the current dollars are being wasted and/or shunted to other jurisdictions are frowned upon.

    how should your region fund their road needs?

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Shep Miller, et al have a point.

    Why aren’t there tolls on the Charlottesville Bypass?
    Why aren’t the trucks that slowly destroy Rt 81 paying their fair share of taxes?
    Why can I zip around Richmond on uncongested roads and rarely pay a toll?

    Tolls will be the Republicans undoing in the state. Regardless of the history, McDonnell and the Republicans will get the blame for the “private – public” partnerships. Selling roads to private concerns just sounds like a Republican idea. And the tolls will expand dramatically while McDonnell is in office. Meanwhile, the tolls seem very arbitrary. Tidewater and NoVa will be riddled with tolls while most other areas will have few to no tolls.

    Tolls are also regressive. A person making $15,000 per year does get hurt by $900 in tolls per year. Period.

    If the Democrats have any sense – this sets up a great intersection of frustration. Pin the tolls on the Republicans. Capitalize on the social liberalism in urban and suburban areas. Focus hard on the increasing minority population – especially in urban and suburban areas. Shut off votes for Republicans in urban and suburban areas.

    We’ll see how well the Republicans fare when they can’t muster 40% of the vote in NoVa or Tidewater in any state-wide election.

    Cuccinelli and Bolling and Connaughton better bask in the sun while the sun is still shining. By the time people realize they are paying $1,000 per year to drive around their metropolitan area while people in other places pay nothing those three won’t be able to buy a vote in the most densely populated, fastest growing areas of the state.

    The Democrats in Virginia have their problems but the Republicans seem just plain stupid.

  6. ” Tidewater and NoVa will be riddled with tolls while most other areas will have few to no tolls.”

    not true. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is tolled. In Richmond, the Powhite and Pocahontas Parkways are tolled. In NoVa, the DTR, and Greenway and I-495 (will soon be) tolled.

    What drives me batty is the idea that 80% refuse to acknowledge the reality that a 1986 gas tax just cannot pay for 21st century needs.

    The Dems have tried almost every year to address this and every year (including this year) the GOP shuts them down.

    Is the GOP stupid? Would you prefer than the GOP go for a gas tax increase?

    I think the DEMs would LOVE THAT idea – TWICE – because it’s their idea AND the Neanderthals in Va will seriously punish the GOP for being so stupid as to advocate tax increases!

    Tolls are what happens when voters refuse to pay their fair share of gas taxes.

    It’s as simple as that.

    You can vote for more congestion but PALEEEEZEE stop blaming others for what we ourselves refuse to do.

    Truckers are not what screws up rush hour in NoVa and Hampton Roads. It’s SOLO-driven autos. that’s the truth and we refuse to face it.

    we want MORE capacity and less congestion but we refuse to pay for it.

    how dumb is that?

  7. In discussing funding with people, I am often told that money is being “diverted” from transportation and/or trucks cause a lot of damage that in turn eats up transpo money.

    here’s a chart showing the finances for transportation in Va:


    look at the estimated 2012 revenues and notice that out of a 2.4 billion budget, that about 800 billion comes from the gas tax and the rest of the money from taxes on new cars and the 1/2% sales tax.

    next – for the 2.4 billion, take the population of Va of everyone 18 and over = about 6 million people and divide it into the total about.

    You’ll get about $400 per capita.

    next, for YOUR county or jurisdiction, multiple the 400 times the 18 and over population. You can find that data at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html.

    that will give you a rough approximation of how much transpo money your county likely receives (a ballpark number).

    the average for Va is about 30 million per county.

    Next – think how much one mile of new road costs – 10-30 million.

    Next – think about how much money is spent on maintenance and operations before you get to use what is left over for new construction.

    the plain facts are this. It is amazing that VDOT has ANY money at all for major construction like bridges and tunnels.

    this is why they are going the toll route.

    citizens, in my view, also have a responsibility to deal with the facts and the realities.

    Petition drives and demonstrations make no sense when they are not based on the realities.

  8. When people decide to get rid of the tolls, they should be able to bog down the system by not having the transponders.

    Toll systems are sneaking in because everyone figures they willl affect someoen else. As they become more ubiquitous, they will be seen for what they are: a hideously expensive and intrusive addtition to the fuel tax.

  9. Truckers are not what screws up rush hour in NoVa and Hampton Roads. It’s SOLO-driven autos. that’s the truth and we refuse to face it.
    This is just plain stupid.

    The rush hour transportation system is all about getting the most number of people moved in the shortest time.

    The reason car pools are not more popular is that they take more time: the cost is not worth the benefit.

    You could pay people enough to participate in and operate car pools, bu it would probably be cheaper to just move a few job sites out of the most congested areas.

  10. here’s my idea. let people vote in a referenda as to what they want to do.

    give them choices.

    let them choose, taxes, tolls or write in.

  11. the narrative with “the truckers” seems to be that they are overweight and as a result – tear up roads – which in turn causes money to have to be devoted to maintenance and repairs that could be, instead, spent on added capacity and congestion reduction … and… THAT’s the reason why we have problems.

    It’s NOT that we do not have enough money for expansions and congestion reduction – we do – but it gets sucked up repairing roads damaged from trucks.

    That’s the theory. I see very little if any evidence to back it up.

    We spend a bunch of money on maintenance (and ops) but I’m pretty skeptical that the vast majority of it is roads that would not need repair except for truck damage.

    The basic problem that we have – across Va – is congestion – at rush hour – on many commuter roads. It’s twice a day congestion at rush hour and the vast majority of the the traffic is SOLO autos – not trucks.

    When you think about NoVa and Hampton Roads in terms of expanding major road capacity – it’s almost laughable in terms of what right of way is actually available and how much it would cost.

    The I-495 HOT lane expansion which mostly uses the median and shoulder areas will cost a billion dollars or more.

    if they actually tried to add even more lanes, they’d have to acquire developed properties and the billion dollar figure would be chump change.

    but the “narrative” says that we’d have that billion + bucks if we had not already spent it on repairing overweight truck damage.


    I think this illustrates the self-imposed disconnected realities of those who want the roads expanded but don’t want to spend a penny of their own money.

    more and more, we are dealing with the flat-earth society on these kinds of issues. They’ve got what they believe ..and that’s that. Don’t make them mad by bringing up facts.

  12. Darrell Avatar

    Know what I found odd about Atlanta? The interstates are a parking lot. What’s odd about that? The MARTA train stations are just huge parking lots too. What’s odd about that? The buses run empty and there’s no TOD anywhere near by. But what was really odd. All this watching congestion and massive parking lots was easily accomplished by driving around the metro area using the vacant city streets.

    The impression I had was on the same order of amazement I get when watching a string of cars plodding along behind a semi instead of using the empty left lane to pass.

    Maybe throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer.

  13. the thing to recognize IMHO is that virtually every single urbanized area in this country with interstates/beltways/etc has heavy congestion twice a day, every weekday at rush hour and the vast majority of the vehicles are SOLO-driven cars.

    the reason the express lanes in Atlanta are empty is not only about tolls, it’s about the ability to use that lane free – if you carpool.

    What happens in Atlanta is not abnormal or unique. In all the urban areas that have tolls and HOV or HOT… people hate the tolls and don’t want to carpool but they also don’t want to pay higher gas taxes for more infrastructure.

    so what does this mean?

    to me, it means people are essentially dunderheads when it comes to this issue.

    they basically want what they want and they do not want to be burdened with facts and realities.

    Should there be any surprise when elected officials and transportation professionals are tasked with the responsibility to deal with the transportation issues – at some point – develop a heavy cynicism?

    I STILL THINK – that you put this to the people but you make them deal with the questions – not just vent their prejudices and willful ignorance of the simple financial realities.

    I don’t see many other solutions….

    If the public refuses to participate meaningfully in the problem, Transpo officials feel they have to go forward even at the risk of pissing off people.

    I NOTE that in Hampton Roads – that although you have SOME elected officials who are up in arms (I call it pandering) , there are others who support the tolls – albeit with a hunkered down posture.

  14. Darrell Avatar

    Somewhere on the HRMPO website there is a report on federal investigation of what passed for public input Hampton Roads politicians used to further their agenda. Thats been the issue down here, with the project selection,funding, and just about everything else these busuness cronies come up with. There is no public input nor trust in government.

  15. Darrel is this it:

    re: trust – I agree… the process itself is abysmal

    but the protesters are against the tolls…. not the public process.
    and that’s pretty much the same situation across Va and other states.

    but I totally agree that the process itself is convoluted, political, corrupt and despite words to the contrary – works to discourage public participation.

    I thought the “divide” might get better/be different when MPOs came along to become (in theory) a competitor to VDOT but the MPOs in many respects are no better than VDOT when it comes to truly engaging the public ..and THAT’s supposed to be one of the specific missions of the MPO.

    fair is fair though – the public does not like taxes or tolls and refuses to choose the least bad of the bad choices.

    they want their roads.. and they don’t want to pay for them.

  16. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    When gas prices reach $7-8.00 a gallon, people will start to carpool. But until then, we Americans love our own cars. We love to drive. Unfortunately, most people have no idea that 45 min. solo commute is costing them a fortune. But what choice do they have? Find a job close to home? HA! very difficult…if you want to have electricity and eat.
    In the end it always comes back to Land Use. 100% of the time. This is what most people do not understand.

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