No Quick Fix for I-66

Image credit: Washington Post

When the Interstate 66 Express Lanes opened a year ago, they triggered a maelstrom of controversy as Northern Virginia commuters encountered new driving patterns. Motorists were particularly irate at peak rush-hour tolls rising as high as $47.50 to drive just a few miles on I-66 inside the Beltway. Virginia transportation officials said, never fear, people would adapt and the picture would improve.

So… Has it? The Washington Post has taken a close look at the numbers. And the newspaper’s verdict is: The express lanes have caused shifts in driving behavior — shifting more people to carpooling, more to mass transit — but for the most part commuters are as miserable as ever.

Some of the changes:

  • Some drivers delay their commute, pushing “rush hour” to later in the morning.
  • Some have started taking the Metro rail and bus systems, even as ridership has fallen regionally. Ridership at the West Falls Church and East Falls Church stations is up by about 200 riders on average, about 5%. Some bus routes have seen higher ridership as well, although the number of passengers is small.
  • Some take alternative routes, displacing congestion to un-tolled arterials. Parallel roads have seen slight increases in traffic. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that congestion on side roads has gotten worse, but state reports indicate that travel times have not increased notably.
  • Because high-occupancy vehicles can ride the express lanes for free, more people are car pooling. The number of vehicles with two or more riders on I-66 inside the Beltway has increased by about 3,000.

Almost everyone hates the tolls but, judging from the numbers in the WaPo story, only a tiny fraction of Northern Virginians have changed their driving habits. A root problem seems to be commuters’ needs for flexibility. Commuters’ work hours and travel routes are unpredictable, so arranging carpools and hewing to mass transit routes and schedules is immensely inconvenient for most.

Bacon’s bottom line: There is no quick fix for Northern Virginia’s transportation challenges. Transportation arteries are fully built out for 20 to 40 miles from the Washington City Center, so it is cost prohibitive to acquire the rights of way for expanded highways and interstates. Meanwhile, the bulk of the region’s land use patterns remain hostile to pedestrian activity and mass transit. Change is occurring as major activity centers are retrofitted as walkable urbanism, but the process is painfully slow. Knitting together a coherent urban fabric from the scattered, disconnected, low-density sprawl literally takes decades, even generations. Hopefully, mega-projects like the Tysons retrofit and the Amazon headquarters expansion will accelerate the transformation in places.

Motorists are understandably resentful of the costs and frustrations associated with their commutes. In the grand American tradition, they want someone to “fix” the problem — as long as someone else pays for the fix. Until the region evolves land use patterns that better jobs/housing/amenities balance that reduces the need for so much long-distance driving, however, no amount of money can make commutes materially better. Like death and taxes, traffic congestion appears to be part of Northern Virginia’s existential condition.

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13 responses to “No Quick Fix for I-66

  1. Interesting that the I81 tolling proposals offer cut rate annual tolls for local residents. Once again the bourbon and branch water Virginia insiders believe that NoVa residents should pay for their driving but nobody else in the state should have to do that.

    • And where are Fairfax County’s state legislators? More worried ab0ut gun control and establishing sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. And of course, they are cheering more and more development. People who live in apartments don’t drive.

  2. So a question. Why can’t folks deduct the cost of their commute on their taxes?

    ” Commuting Expenses are Personal Choice. The IRS says that commuting expenses are personal expenses. Where you live in relation to your business is at your personal discretion and is travel is not an “ordinary and necessary” expense of business”

    So the thing is that if you take a job that requires you to drive 30, 40, 50 miles and you intend to do it solo – given the obvious realities – that’s on you.

    The original intent of the interstate highway system was to connect the country in such a way that one could go from A to B without having to go through intermediate cities and towns in between.

    That’s where the beltways came from.

    If there ever was something done with unintended consequences, this has to be the mother of all of them because the beltways essentially became a “settlement pattern”. Not only could folks travel the “spokes” to/from the city but they could also “go around” and then take another spoke in or out and “out” to distances like 50 miles that could never be viable commutes on non-interstate roads.

    We can’t go back and won’t but going forward is a whole different kettle of fish because once you’ve used up all the available right-of-way – what do you do next? Start destroying developed property which increases the cost 50-fold or more?

    So what exactly are viable answers to this?

    What cities have successfully implemented better solutions that do not involve tolls?

    serious question.

    • This may sound harsh, but, if you are considering a job that would require you to drive 30, 40, 0r 50 miles, then you need to consider the costs and time that such a commute would exact, and, if you then decide to take the job anyway, then you should not be complaining. I have voiced my impatience with my colleagues in Richmond who complain about the tolls required to cross the James River to get to work from Chesterfield, when they chose to live in Chesterfield because the housing costs there were lower due, in great part, to the barrier of the river and the tolls.

      Speaking of higher housing costs, my daughter lives in Northern Virginia and she, as well as others she knows, have chosen to continue to live “closer in” (inside the Beltway), despite the higher housing costs, mainly because of the commuting issues. So, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those folks who choose to live on mini-estates in Fauquier County and then complain about the I-66 tolls.

      • That is a good point, Dick. Those who chose their bed, must live with it. The people I am concerned about are those many with little choice, or options, and without the means to easily escape, what others easily can.

      • we’re pretty much in agreement. Folks do make choices and those who move “out” for lower prices and also intend to drive solo to/from work every day – that’s a choice and it’s on you. Blaming VDOT or the Washington Post makes no sense what-so-ever.

        I keep asking – given the situation what would/should VDOT do otherwise?

        Basically, people are pissed off but they really don’t have any viable alternatives except don’t toll. They resent the tolls and the purpose of the tolls.

  3. The Washington Post article has many failings, for the situation is far worse than the article depicts. Part of the reason for that is that due and deserved attention is not given in the article to the damage done by tolls to travel on the non-tolled roads. Conversely, too much attention is given by the Post article to reduced travel times on tolled roads. And, because Virginia transportation authorities want us to focus on tolled roads instead of the increased harm they have done to non tolled roads, they mislead us.

    The problems will only grow worse absent major land use fixes as aided by new cultural habits that land used fixes, and new technologies, engender.

    • When I go to the office, several times a week, I travel south on Route 123 from McLean to Tysons. I usually travel between 8 and 9 am so traffic is expectedly heavy. Sometimes I stay on 123 until International Drive. Other times, I go the back way via Lewinsville Road. Anecdotally, traffic heading north on Route 123 is much higher than it was before tolls were imposed on I-66. I’d like to see data.

      And, of course, the Post doesn’t go beyond what is told to them by VDOT. After all, we have a Democratic Governor.

  4. I cannot comment too much on I66 because I95 is closer and we have long tradition of slugging (car pooling), that I-66 is hoping to replicate. Not sure how that effort is going. But the last shoe to drop on I66 will be when the remainder is HOT Lanes out to Manassas and beyond. That will take hybrids (Clean Fuel plates) out of HOV there as well. Part of the reason Ca. sells so many plug-ins is because they allow plug-ins to have free HOV.

  5. Tolls now days are used for two important reasons.

    First, they allow funds to be borrowed to build improvements including the dedicated toll lanes as well as widening which often involves re-building overpasses and bridges and interchanges.

    The reason they select a private entity is that Virginia is at the limit of what it can borrow without adversely affecting it’s credit rating. Even other projects in the state are using Public-Private partnerships where private builds and the private entity then recovers it’s investment via leases and/or other payments from the State or locality.

    The second reason is that tolls are used to manage congestion and that’s why the tolls are dynamic and vary according to demand.

    New York city has instituted congestion tolls and is proposing more and citizens initially opposed then, now support them overall with suburban commuters more split but still in favor.

    https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/majority-nyc-voters-oppose-congestion-pricing-plan-poll-article-1.3903472

    HOT lane tolls in urban areas are different from tolling on roads like I-81 which has a different traffic pattern from urban areas twice-daily peak hour patterns. Providing NoVa with the ability to buy reduced price bundles – if they still wanted to drive at peak hour.

    Yes, some folks will use side streets – no question but others will vary WHEN they drive to either seek less congested times and/or lower tolls.

    I just don’t see any viable alternatives to this. I’ve asked others over and over for what they think might work and I’m pretty sure VDOT would seriously consider anything they thought might be effective.

    The bottom line is that despite all the talk about urban settlement patterns that encourage/support less auto use and more transit/bike/ped use is that we still are a very auto-centric society and I do have a question for NoVa folks:

    Suppose there was no commuting from exurban counties. Would congestion for NoVa use of the NoVa transportation network be “better”?

    Is exurban commuting a major element of the congestion or is congestion in NoVa bad all the time regardless of exurban commuters?

  6. Unfortunately, this blog post is based on an incompetent and biased Washington Post article that was published about five weeks ago. (A brief critique of the WaPo article is posted here: [ https://acstnet.blogspot.com/2018/12/incompetent-and-biased-wapo-report.html ]).

    The WaPo article emphasized the “horror stories” of inconvenienced drive-alone commuters, rather than the considerable factual evidence that the tolling of I-66 inside the Beltway has been truly transformation and is a substantial success.

    That tolling has already substantially increased ridesharing and express bus ridership, moving at least 5,000 more people through the corridor each weekday, all at uncongested freeway speeds. During weekday commuting hours, traffic congestion on I-66 has largely ended (because the weekday HOV restrictions were expanded from 5 hours to 8 hours per day), while congestion on alternative routes is essentially unchanged or lessened. Moreover, at least $20 million/year of toll revenue is now being invested in multimodal corridor improvements (notably NEW I-66 express bus services), creating a virtuous cycle.

    Despite the outcry over “exorbitant tolls”, about two-thirds of the people who travel on I-66 during tolling are carpoolers or bus riders who PAY NO TOLL AT ALL. That share is even greater when the toll prices are highest.

    Net traffic diversion onto alternative routes has generally not materialized because many solo motorists who previously used alternative routes are now gladly paying (or having their employer pay) the new I-66 tolls for a faster and more reliable trip.

  7. Thanks, Reed!

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