Toll Roads in Action

I normally don’t have much good to say about transportation planning in the Richmond region, but one institution does seem to be working well: The Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which governs the Powhite Parkway and Downtown Expressway, two critical commuting arteries funded entirely through tolls.

The RMA is in the news today because the board took the not-very-popular decision to raise tolls. While I’m not exactly excited about paying more to drive on highways I use with some frequency, I really can’t complain. Based on reports in the Times-Dispatch, I believe the money will be put to good use.

The higher tolls will raise $80 million in projected maintenance and construction costs over the next decade: bridge repairs, installation of high-speed toll lanes, and $500,000 in annual routine maintenance (snow removal, pot-hole repair and grass cutting) that the Virginia Department of Transportation has provided until now.

I think it’s a good thing that the RMA has the flexibility to raise tolls as needed to maintain the system and make spot improvements to eliminate bottlenecks. The thing I’m looking for more than anything when I hop on the Expressway is free-flowing traffic. One day the original construction bonds will be paid off and the RMA will be able to lower tolls. But I hope the board doesn’t eliminate the tolls entirely and turn the highways over to VDOT. I like knowing that the RMA is running the show and has a dedicated source of revenue to keep the highways in top shape and congestion-free.

If other regions of Virginia had any sense, they’d adopt the RMA model for themselves.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    How much are the tolls, per mile?


  2. I have one issue with Powhite – their EZpass readers are the slowest of any I’ve seen. You almost have to come to a stop before getting a green light. Can’t wait for installation of full speed readers for better traffice management.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    My drive downtown, which includes the Powhite Parkway, is now $1.60 one way (with the EZ Pass discount) and will go to $2.10. Maybe 15 miles of that is toll road. So call it $1.40 or $1.50 a mile…now all three toll booth will be the same — 70 cents.

    Having to collect that 70 cents in cash (staff suggested three quarters) is going to add to the bottlenecks I betcha…so instead of a discount they will use that to encourage EZ Pass.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Sheesh. $0.14 or .15 cents per mile. Moved that decimal point a bit…

  5. Groveton Avatar


    First, a question –

    I often drive around Richmond on the way to the Carolinas. I take 95S to 295 to 64E. 295 seems to be “the Richmond beltway”. Maybe I am confused here but that’s what it seems to represent. Now, 295 is four lanes in both directions and there is never any appreciable traffic on that stretch of road. In fact, it’s almost comical to see such a large road with so few cars. How did Richmond (with an MSA population of 1.2M) end up with the same sized “beltway” as Washington (with an MSA population of 4.9M)? If I have this right – Washington is more than four times larger, probably pays about four times more in taxes but has the same size beltway as Richmond. And you think it was the tolls that kept Richmond from suffereing Washington-style congestion? From casual observation, it seems more like pork than toll.

    “One day the original construction bonds will be paid off and the RMA will be able to lower tolls.”.

    Kind of like the Dulles Toll Rd. Oh wait – the tolls on that road were increased to pay for Rail to Dulles. Oh wait – Rail to Dulles is dead because the feds won’t fund it.

    Maybe the Richmond area represents some kind of special case because that’s where the GA works. Maybe you are right to trust the political process to work in favor of the people of Richmond. Maybe. But thinking that the state legislature can be trusted to “do the right thing” in NoVA is pure folly.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, As far as I’m concerned, I-295 is a perfect example of politics-driven road construction. There was no demand-side justification for it. I haven’t examined the project in detail, so I don’t know who got rich (or expected to get rich) from it. Also, I don’t know what other Richmond-area road projects were deferred because of it. But it was largely a waste of money.

    Then there’s U.S. 288, another “beltway” road driven purely by politics. No tolls — all paid for by the state, much of it from the General Fund. Absolutely outrageous. Even though I’m a “beneficiary” of the project in that I use the road occasionally, I can fairly state that the project justified only as a way to enrich a handful of well-connected Republican landowners. I have opposed the project since the beginning and have done everything I can to expose the travesty.

    Ironically, neither of those projects has done much to improve traffic congestion in the Richmond region. (U.S. 288 has helped a little, but the money could have been spent to far greater effect on other projects.) If Richmond has smoother-flowing traffic than NoVa, it has nothing to do with those two politically inspired boondoggles (or a third boondoggle, the Pocahontas Parkway, another road to nowhere). What we have that other regions don’t is the Powhite Parkway/Downtown Expressway, which complements the Interstate system, and is funded by tolls. That project has been *very* successful.

    Here’s the lesson you need to take home: It’s not *how much* road-building money you take home. It’s what the money is spent on. The problem with the current system in Virginia is that it allows all sorts of stupid, wasteful projects to get built if there there are determined boosters behind them, while other critical project with no organized constituencies go unfunded.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I heard on the redio this morning that some tolls on the proposed NOVA HOT lanes could go as high as $4.00 per mile.

    The AAA spokesman said that at that price they were no longer Lexus lanes.

    (Limo lanes, maybe?)

    Any rate, at that price the people who pay will HOT, alright.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    “…is going to add to the bottlenecks I betcha…so instead of a discount they will use that to encourage EZ Pass.”

    Gotta love this kind of machiavellian bureaucracy “Congestion is our friend.” type of thinking.


  9. Anonymous Avatar

    “A Michigan congressman wants to put a 50-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline to try to cut back on Americans’ consumption.

    Polls show that a majority of Americans support policies that would reduce greenhouse gases. But when it comes to paying for it, it’s a different story.

    Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., wants to help cut consumption with a gas tax but some don’t agree with the idea, according to a new poll by the National Center for Public Policy Research.

    The poll, scheduled to be released on Thursday, shows 48 percent don’t support paying even a penny more, 28 percent would pay up to 50 cents more, 10 percent would pay more than 50 cents and 8 percent would pay more than a dollar.”,2933,339589,00.html

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    And, if you think Dingle is insane, check this out.

    “The Earth Policy Institute proposes raising the gas tax 30 cents per gallon each year over a decade and offset with a reduction of income taxes…”


  11. Groveton Avatar


    There is definitely something wrong with the road building approach in Virginia – all over. I know new settlement patterns are the ultimate cure but, until then, we need some better road planning. Any chance we could buy a couple of those 295 lanes and move them up here?

    Ray – I like the Earth Policy Institute approach better. At least they are talking about shifting taxes from income tax to gas tax. As far as I can see Dingle just wants to increase taxes overall.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim is absolutely right about I-295 being politics driven. I was in the Richmond area for a couple of years in the early 1980s working for the local newspaper. Construction began then and there was nothng around the road. Almost 20 years later, there’s STILL nothing around I-295.
    Ironically, a house where my family lived in Bethesda was right where the Beltway was begun back in the late 1950s. There was stuff around 495 even then.
    As far as the RMA toll, it’s the old Harry F. Byrd pay as you go, but I do thiunk they couldn’t have broken up this hefty toll hike. The no-tax types like tolls but tolls are kinda taxes anyway.

    Peter Galuszka

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “At least they are talking about shifting taxes from income tax to gas tax.”

    That was my intial thought too. But they are talking 30 cents, per year for ten years.

    And you only get an offset against you rincome taxes if you drive the mileage. And of course, if you have enough income and taxes to offset with.

    It has to be done that way because other wise you would have a mandatory tax (income) being offset with an optional tax (how much you drive). Office buildings would offer employee living suites as a benefit, to avoid taxes, like they do parking now (EMR would love it.).

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    ahhh public transit…

    now we understand why all those Japanese folks like up on their high speed rail platforms every day.

    never fear though – there is hope; the plug-in electric could restore full mobility to the American in seek of suburban nirvana…

    and gas taxes would be just for chumps… who insisted on gasoline-powered buggies..

    the wall street guys have been saying it years. The US is the Saudi Arabia of Coal.

    Why not power our cars with “clean coal” electricity?

    no muss. no fuss. and no gas tax.


  15. I know that this is a little afield from the original topic of the post, but my comment is to bring some clarity to Rep. Dingell’s gas tax proposal.

    He rolls a bill like this out every year or so to make a point about demand and where responsibility for gas usage lays. Considering the fact that his constituency is auto makers and their employees, he objects (and objected) to higher CAFE standards as they would have a marginal to negligible effect on carbon emissions, but have a real impact on profits of the Big 3 auto makers (negative). The resulting impact on corporate profits would further shrink the number auto workers. Rather than let the market dictate what cars people buy and drive, as it is currently doing just fine without increased governmental intervention, the federal government put the onus on the auto companies with little regard apparent for the real consequences of their actions, all in the name of “doing something.”

    While I do not agree with higher gas taxes as they appear to be inherently recessive, perhaps the time is right for someone to begin an earnest discussion about user fees.

    NB- Has anyone else in Northern VA received Dulles Toll Road survey? This survey focused entirely on what kinds of transit times and fees commuters would be willing to bear for either single car or rail. No mention of bus mass transit.

  16. Michael Ryan Avatar
    Michael Ryan

    People here in Gloucester were sure annoyed when they raised the Smart Tag toll on the Coleman Bridge. The old bridge had no toll, but when they widened it in ’96 they set the Smart Tag rate at 50 cents. Then, last year, they raised it to 85 cents. Why? Traffic was lower than their projections, and revenues were insufficient to pay off the bonds.

    Let’s re-read that. They replaced the bridge (well, widened it), to accommodate traffic that didn’t come, and now the residents that didn’t pay before, but had to pay afterward, were told they still weren’t paying enough for a bridge improvement they didn’t need. Clear?

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Michael, The Gloucester Bridge sounds like an interesting case study. When you finance road improvements with tolls, there is always the risk of miscalculating market demand and resulting toll revenues. That’s why I think such projects should be privately financed by investors who have real skin in the game — equity to lose if they misjudge demand.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    Yes, but as we see, the investors with real skin in the game have their loans guaranteed by the government anyway.

    Government has an obligton to, and can afford to, take a longer term view.

    The “investors” may be mutual funds, which means the money comes from citizens anyway. The only difference is if it is voluntary or not, and the ROI, less profits to the managers, of course.


  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There’s another interesting example.

    The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

    Why was it built as a toll facility instead of paid for by “the state” – all Va taxpayers?

    Ditto for some of HR/TW tunnels.

    Some folks may not realize that the Interstate Highway system itself was originally conceived to be paid for by tolls, but the idea was rejected when studies indicated that many of the rural interstates would not be used in significant enough numbers to pay for the toll booths and collectors. (that being way before EZ-Pass).

    as far as the Coleman Bridge expansion is concerned – do you wait in line a decade or more for funding and by that time the bridge is way overloaded…or do you borrow the money to expand it and have to pay it back?

    It’s not like you can save money by only adding half a lane…

    the issue is being able to calculate with some accuracy – how many folks are willing to pay how much of a toll – which is not a perfect science – as evidenced by VDOT’s experience with the Richmond 288.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    The Springfield Interchange and Wilson Bridge are also a major part of the interstate system and they are NOT tolled.

    The Bride Tunnel, I imagine, had substantial federal support, so it wes never a question of being supported solely with state funds.

    And, when it was built, it connected to a lightly developed neck of land and a two lane highway. There wasn’t eneough use to imagine paying for it through normal ROI.

    Anyway, BBBT is an extraordinary structure in any accounting. tolls were justified there, but it doesn’t mean they are justified in general.


  21. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Federal support? not true.

    I didn’t quite catch your reply to the idea of “user pays” or having that structure paid for by all Virginians to help Eastern Shore Virginians.

    What was it again?

    re: history

    …”From the early 1930’s to 1954, a private corporation managed scheduled ferry service between Virginia’s Eastern Shore”

    …”In 1956, the General Assembly authorized the Ferry Commission to explore the construction of a fixed crossing. Results of the study indicated a crossing was feasible and recommended a series of bridges and tunnels. In the summer of 1960, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commission sold $200 million in revenue bonds to private investors. Monies collected by future tolls were pledged to pay the principal and interest on these bonds.”

    “he Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission began investigating the possibility of building a parallel crossing in 1987. By 1989, in-house studies and projections and a comprehensive study conducted in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Transportation concluded that parallel bridges, trestles, and roadways would be needed by the year 2000 to meet future traffic demands and provide a safer crossing for travelers.

    The Virginia General Assembly in 1990 thereby empowered the Bridge-Tunnel Commission with the authority to proceed with the Parallel Crossing Project.

    Beginning in 1991, revenue bonds were sold to finance engineering, environmental and traffic studies. Sverdrup Civil, Inc., Consulting Engineers to the District, was selected to design, prepare specifications and contract documents, and be Construction Manager for the project.

    On May 4, 1995, the Commission awarded a construction contract in the amount of $197,185,177 to a joint venture of PCL Civil Constructors, Inc. of Denver, CO, The Hardaway Company of Columbus, GA and Interbeton, Inc. of Rockland, MA, to build a second span parallel and adjacent to the original Bridge-Tunnel. The project, which expanded the two-lane facility into four lanes, included expansion of toll plazas, trestles, bridges and roadways, and maintenance and repair on the original span. The project did not include the expansion of the four manmade islands or additional tunnels. Tunnels will be constructed at a later date.

    The project, financed by monies from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District and through the sale of additional revenue bonds, was completed in April, 1999.”

    ” No local, state or federal tax monies were utilized for the construction costs.”

    .. this project IS strictly “user pays”.

    Why is that?

    If that project can be built as strictly “user pays” then why cannot others?

    By building it as “user pays”, are we “forcing” drivers to pay for something that should have been built by gas tax money?

    inquiring minds would like to know why it is “ok” to have some “user-pays” projects while others are “forcing” people to pay when gas taxes should have been used instead of “forcing” people to pay.


  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    More fodder for Sunday:

    Toll-Lane Revenue Proposal Gets a Rewrite in Richmond
    State Plan Diverts Funding From Regional Projects

    Washington area leaders agreed to turn the carpool lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 into express toll lanes in part to raise $195 million for transit, a plan that included buying 184 clean-fuel buses that would speed commuters into the District or to the Pentagon.

    But that was before the proposal got to Richmond. The state’s transit agency reworked the plan, put together by the Virginia Department of Transportation and a consultant. It wants to use toll revenue to extend Virginia Railway Express train platforms in Fredericksburg and to pay $1.3 million for storage for six Fredericksburg-bound train cars that would be bought with $12.6 million in toll money.

    And all those new buses? The number has been reduced to 76.

    “It’s a bait-and-switch,” said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D).

    Under a proposal approved last year by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, two I-95/395 carpool lanes would be converted into three high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

    The 184 buses would have reduced the time between buses at stops in Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties to a maximum of 22 minutes. Buses and carpools of three or more would not pay tolls on HOT lanes.

    After reviewing the proposal, the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation recommended that some of the money be spent differently — and farther south. In addition to $40 million for VRE, the state would spend $76.6 million on park-and-ride lots and other facilities south of the converted HOT lanes, expected to open in two years.

    And because the state’s plan would eliminate many fare-collecting buses in favor of capital spending projects such as buying railcars, it would bring in about $92 million less in revenue than the original plan, officials said.

    “This is classic,” said Fairfax resident Bob Perotti, who attended a recent public hearing on transportation. “Have you noticed that Richmond has the best roads in the state and Northern Virginia has the worst traffic?”

    Northern Virginia leaders say the state’s proposed changes are the latest example of the region being used as a piggy bank for the Commonwealth.

    “This is diverting resources needed here to another part of the state,” said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “These are our resources.”

    State transit officials defended their proposal, which they say is backed by scientific research, consultation with transit providers and public input showing that a combination of VRE capital improvements and additional park-and-ride facilities and bus transit would be the most efficient use of transit money.

    “We emphasize the options that worked,” said Corey W. Hill, chief of transit and congestion management for the rail and transportation department. He said that the number of buses was cut because “the problem is that earlier they didn’t do a demand analysis. Would anybody be riding in them?”

    He said that the proposed number, 184, was a place holder and that focusing on the number of buses is the wrong way to look at solving a regional issue.

    “We already have a lot of bus service today,” Hill said. “In the northern portion of the corridor, there are 90 buses an hour in the peak hour of the commute.”

    The revised plan includes five rapid-transit bus stations along the corridor and bus service with the frequency of rail service, he said.

    “We are proposing a higher quality bus service than what you have out there today,” Hill said.

    Northern Virginia officials say they don’t want an incremental increase in bus service but a radical change that would turn the proposed HOT lanes into a partial busway that would move people cheaply and quickly.

    “That a few people are scratching their heads is a good way to describe it,” said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “It appears as if the money has drifted south, as we say.”

    The battle over the transit dollars comes as the General Assembly struggles to find a way to pay for Northern Virginia transportation improvements after the state Supreme Court ruled that a regional tax authority created to raise money is unconstitutional.

    Although the HOT lane plan was originally designed as a 56-mile project from the Pentagon to Massaponax, only the northern half, where HOV lanes run from Dumfries to the Pentagon, is fully funded and included in the regional plan.

    The proposed southern half of the project, which would entail building two lanes from where Stafford and Prince William counties meet to Massaponax, is in the environmental study stage and is not included in the region’s plan. A spokeswoman for the private consortium partnering with VDOT on the project said the company and state remain committed to building the southern phase.

    Local leaders said they thought the $195 million in toll revenue was to be used in traffic-choked Northern Virginia.

    But state transit officials said they viewed their task as easing congestion along the entire I-95 corridor, including improving VRE service. Underlying their plan is the assumption that the southern phase, through Fredericksburg to Massaponax, will be built.

    Another point of contention is what is seen as a diversion of HOT lane resources to VRE. Six VRE rail cars can carry up to 1,500 passengers, or roughly the equivalent of 30 buses carrying 50 passengers each, according to VRE.

    “People don’t use VRE not because there are not enough rail cars, but because it is either too expensive or too inconvenient,” said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. He said he uses the HOV lanes at least twice a week to commute into the District.

    Virginia’s transportation chief said the final decision on how to spend the toll money will not just be up to the rail and transportation department. Any changes will have to be approved by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

    “This is a recommendation of transit providers in the corridor,” said state Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. “The point is to take cars off the road. It doesn’t matter if they’re taken off in Fredericksburg, Massaponax, Gunston or Alexandria. It’s a trip that’s not made, and that’s the point.”

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