I-66 Rush-Hour Travel Speeds Up 12%

Source: Nick Donohue, Deputy Secretary of Transportation

Did the implementation of tolls on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway hurt or harm rush-hour travel times? I addressed that issue yesterday based on data from a Washington Post article. Now I supplement that post with data direct from Deputy Secretary Transportation Nick Donohue.

The tolls have been widely criticized by commuters, many of whom recoil at charges that have exceeded $40 for a one-way trip during rush hour. However, average eastbound travel speeds improved 12.2% for all lanes in the year since the tolls were implemented, according to Virginia Department of Transportation data that Donohue cited in a presentation to the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability last week. The greatest gains occurred between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. and around 9:30 a.m.

VDOT data also shows that average travel speeds increased 2.8% on Rt. 50 eastbound, 10% on Rt. 29 eastbound, and 6.5% on Rt. 7 eastbound over the same period. Evening westbound traffic speeds improved even more on I-66: by 19.2%.

The use of High Occupancy Vehicles (carpooling) increased by 15%, eliminating nearly 2,000 car trips during rush hour.

Another benefit of the tolls, noted Donohue, is that they generate revenue for additional improvements to the transportation corridor. VDOT has invested $22 million to date in “new and enhanced bus service, park-in-ride lots, ITS and transportation demand management strategies.” VDOT is planning another $20 million in projects.

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9 responses to “I-66 Rush-Hour Travel Speeds Up 12%

  1. The “average” toll is not $40.00 and that point is lost when it becomes the most often stated “example”.

    Also, often lost is the fact that over 2000 cars, as is reported here, are removed from the “free” lanes… which does result in faster trips – for everyone.

    There is no magic. It basically means that every car taken off by folks moving to higher occupancy vehicles – benefits everyone.

    One more uncomfortable reality. If VDOT or Virginia had asked users of I-66/Nova via referenda, would they have supported tolling if it resulted in faster travel times – guess what the result would have been? In fact, if you did that poll right now – even with this data, a sizeable majority probably would reject it.

    The reality is that most folks are in denial of the problem as well as what are viable solutions and VDOT took this path because they felt they had to – they had no other solutions.

    Even if Virginia/VDOT could find the money to buy more right-of-way to add more free lanes – the result would actually be to encourage more folks to drive solo and less folks to carpool.

  2. I’d still like to know the impact on traffic volumes on Route 123 though McLean and Vienna.

    I think Larry’s right in that, in a plebiscite, tolling would lose. But it does seem to have at least some beneficial impact on I-66 inside the Beltway traffic. I’d still look at tolling to reach a slightly slower speed and I’d impose a low, fixed toll going in the opposite direction.

    • It is good they came forth with these numbers. These are very complex matters with far reaching, and greatly varied harms, benefits, and costs, affecting citizens in wildly different ways, short, mid and long term. We now surely have the means to track all this with far greater accurately, scope, and complexity than before. This should be done and made public. It will also accelerate and focus on real long term solutions, including land use and decision making policies across the spectrum of private and public interests and impacts. We all need far more information and far holistic view of problems and possible solutions. Secrecy and proprietary shields need to be torn down. They cannot work anymore in this information age.

  3. Lexus Lanes right? The main thing happening is the tolls are high enough to force drivers off the highway, except those willing to pay heavy tolls.

    There are a few more 2x car pools now, but it’s going to 3x in a few years. Mainly we have single occupancy drivers willing to pay the price, I think is what the WaPo article basically said.

    Those former I66 commuters should move to my area where we have good highway access and more options such as VRE. Except VDOT now wants to block our access to the highway so that the through traffic can proceed uninterupted. All of a sudden I feel like Arlington…sent my public meeting comments in today.

  4. lots of complaints… few, if any suggestions for alternative solutions.

    that’s the problem.

    VDOT is saying that we are out of road capacity in areas where we cannot add lanes without tearing down developed properties and replacing them with more asphalt and their approach is to encourage people to NOT drive solo vehicles at rush hour – all the time.

    In other words, if you have a daily trip to/from work – try to carpool or use transit if you can on the days you can OR shift your hours OR pay a toll.

    Not every location has a VRE but just about every place has carpool lots and van/bus service.

    What we basically have is a lot of folks who purposely pick a place to live 30,40, 50 miles from their job and they do so INTENDING to drive solo to/from every day AND they’re willing to spend the extra money on gasoline AND replacing the car once it wears out BUT they’re NOT willing to carpool, pay tolls or shift their commute hours AND they then want to blame VDOT and they have no viable alternatives to propose instead.

    • Ultimately the problem is Arlington did not want the highway expanded to handle the traffic, which we can argue if correct policy, therefore the region is stuffed up in that area.

      We had a lot of drivers buy hybrids for free I-66 access, when that was ended, some of them probably thought they could shift hours. Then VDOT expanded the rush hour time slot as well, so now they gotta leave hone by 4:30AM. But I don’t know what the communters were thinking to accept that traffic when they located.

      Not sure how we were smart enough to pick a house in the right place. But we were locating close to our jobs in NoVA, and our daughter was at Geo. Wash Univ. , so we did not want to be too far out.

  5. Let’s say I spend one hour per day commuting to and from work on I66. A 12% reduction means that I now spend 52.8 minutes commuting, a daily savings of 7.2 minutes. For that, I pay $40. That equates to $333 per hour that I am paying for saved time.

    What a deal.

  6. The 12% gain in travel speed is for the overall morning commute. The gain for peak rush hour, during which commuters pay $40+ to avoid congestion, is more like 33%. Still expensive, but roughly one-third of what you calculated.

  7. The main direct benefit of the I-66 tolls for solo motorists is lawful ACCESS to what was previously a largely uncongested HOV facility, NOT newly faster travel on I-66 itself. I-66 access allows motorists to make full-length trips at 45-60+ MPH, compared to average overall stop-and-go speeds of 20-30 MPH on roughly parallel toll-free alternative arterial roads (Rtes 50, 29, and the GWMP).

    As the graph at the top of this post shows, the AM travel time improvements under tolling are limited to the periods 5:30-7:00 am and 9:00-9:30 am. That’s because under the previous HOV restrictions, which were limited to 6:30-9:00 am, I-66 was already generally uncongested between 7:00-9:00 am, making additional travel time improvements during those hours infeasible.

    During the hour of peak AM toll prices (7:45-8:45 am), the tolling of I-66 did NOT increase travel speeds at all.

    Eastbound I-66 inside the Beltway also has two significant bottlenecks that reduce capacity, limit maximum travel speeds, and increase toll prices:

    1) Between West Falls Church and Ballston, four eastbound travel lanes from the convergence of I-66 and the Dulles Connector Road now merge into three lanes to East Falls Church and then two lanes to Ballston. A project to add an additional eastbound lane throughout this four-mile segment is currently under construction, and the temporary lane-narrowing, shoulder loss, and jersey barriers are not helping the situation. This eastbound widening (which will largely complement two earlier westbound-only widening) should significantly improve vehicular capacity and lower average toll prices. The future drop from three eastbound lanes to two eastbound lanes at Ballston is not expected to create a significant new bottleneck because at least 1/3 of the eastbound I-66 traffic now exits at Ballston.

    2) East of the last eastbound tolling gantry, which is west of Spout Run Pkwy, I-66 experiences recurrent traffic congestion from the approach to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, where I-66 merges with traffic from Rtes 29, 50, and the GWMP. The drop in average travel speeds between 7 and 9 am in the graph at the top of this post is likely due to Roosevelt Bridge traffic congestion, as well as the much greater demand to commute during these two peak AM hours.

    I-66 tolling should be primarily viewed as a 21st Century replacement for the former (and widely unpopular) HOV restrictions (i.e., congestion pricing of limited uncongested freeway capacity), not as a revenue scheme. In short, as unpopular as the I-66 tolling has been, it was more politically feasible than simply expanding the I-66 HOV restriction hours.

    In short, the improvements in I-66 travel speeds and trip times are NOT at all due to the introduction of tolling per se. Rather, they are due to the expansion of the HOV restriction periods (from 2.5 hours to 4 hours each way), as well as ending the former HOV exemptions for trips to and from Dulles Airport and for vehicles with long-grandfathered clean fuel license plates and an associated reduction in the formerly rampant HOV cheating.

    The expanded HOV and tolling period does not just better promote ridesharing and express bus travel during the bulk of the NoVA commuting hours. It also promises to lower the publicly subsidized capital and operating costs for express bus transit on I-66, by allowing a given number of buses and bus drivers to complete more revenue trips. For that reason alone, I-66 should also be tolled in the reverse-commute direction, a proposal that former Governor McAuliffe dropped in October 2015 due to widespread opposition.

    Reverse-commute I-66 tolls should be MUCH lower than those in the peak direction, because both travel demand and ridesharing (toll-free travel) is far lower in the reverse commute direction. With the completion of the four-mile eastbound I-66 widening (in 2020), Dulles Rail Phase 2 (in 2020??), and the opening of the I-66 outside the Beltway express lanes and the change to HOV-3+ for a toll-free trip (in 2022), toll prices on I-66 inside the Beltway will drop dramatically and reverse-commute tolling may become politically viable.

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