A cordon toll would charge commuters for entering the Tysons area of Fairfax County. A dynamic-pricing toll would charge variable rates depending upon time of day with the goal of optimizing use of scarce road capacity during peak travel times. (Click map for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

Earlier this week the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors backed off from a proposal to set up a special tax district that would help pay for some $3 billion in public improvements in Tysons. News reports suggest that the reprieve may be only temporary. The board has not backtracked from its vision of transforming Tysons from a dysfunctional “edge city” into a model of higher-density, smart-growth urbanism.

Local citizens expressed ferocious opposition to the tax plan, which would have increased property taxes in Tysons by about 8.4%. According to an Examiner editorial, the taxes would raise a mere $250 million over the next 40 years, or only 11% of the total. Developers would kick in about $1.1 billion, still leaving the county $1.7 billion short. Condo owners would pay higher taxes for what — an incomplete solution? Who can blame them for getting fired up?

The Fairfax Board has backed itself into an untenable position. It agreed to a tripling of development density in Tysons to capitalize upon the opportunities created by four METRO stations in the soon-to-be-completed Phase 1 of the Rail-to-Dulles project. But the massive increase in commercial space would lead to an equally massive influx of commuters into the business district, the second largest in the Washington region, only a fraction of which would be accommodated by METRO. The new commuting patterns, in turn, would create traffic gridlock, necessitating an overhaul of the arterials leading in and out of the district — improvements that the Virginia Department of Transportation cannot pay for.

Something has to be done. I would propose resurrecting an idea I advanced several years ago — charging vehicles a toll for entering the Tysons district. The idea would emulate successful experiments in London, Stockholm and Singapore, which use tolls as a rationing mechanism for scarce roadway capacity in congested downtowns.

A cordon toll would do two things: (1) It would raise money for transportation improvements, and (2) it would incentivize commuters to seek alternatives to the Single Occupancy Vehicle. A cordon toll would encourage people who work in Tysons to live there, too, where they could walk or ride interior transit circulators to the office. A cordon toll also would encourage outsiders to avail themselves of shared ridership services — the METRO, buses, carpooling and vans — when they enter. Here’s the crucial point: Insofar as a cordon toll reduced the number of trips in and out of Tysons, it would reduce (though not eliminate) the need for new road construction.

A higher tax on real estate would address only the supply side of the transportation equation. A cordon toll would address both the supply and demand sides. The Fairfax Board could defuse opposition by discounting or eliminating the toll for Tysons residents on the grounds that they are not jamming the arterials during peak travel times. Indeed, such an exemption would encourage more people to move into Tysons, thus creating a better balance between residential and commercial land uses. By contrast, a special tax district would raise the cost of Tysons housing and discourage people from moving there.

Will it happen? I have seen no sign that anyone has considered the idea of a cordon toll. The tax-district proposal has a lot of bureaucratic momentum behind it, and Fairfax supervisors may have invested too much political capital to abandon it. When bureaucracy and politics conflict with economic rationality, bet on bureaucracy and politics to win every time.

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13 responses to “Why Not a Toll for Tysons?”

  1. Be curiouto see TMT and DJ,s take. I like it. What about the smart growthers?

    1. One big factor that must be considered is the large amount of through traffic on both Routes 7 & 123. As I recall, approximately 37% of the traffic on Route 7 at Tysons is through traffic. The number for Route 123 is higher. So it would be wrong, IMO, to impose a cordon tax on any car or truck driving on Routes 7 or 123 through Tysons. Imposition of such a tax would push more through traffic onto neighborhood streets that already are overburdened with commuter traffic.

      I would instead propose to impose a parking tax on virtually all parking located within the TOD area – which is one quarter mile of the stations. I would not impose the tax on parking for any retail stores in the TOD. Some of these stores will remain for some time. They need business and shouldn’t be burdened with a parking tax. However, I would impose time limits on the lot parking to make sure the retail exception is not abused by workers. Perhaps, two hours is a good limit. Tysons can employ and pay people to enforce the parking limits.

      Also, I would not impose any parking tax outside the 1/4 mile, initially. As urban development expands beyond the 1/4 mile, I would impose the parking tax, probably at a rate lower than that imposed within the initial 1/4 mile. If you live or work within the immediate TOD, you should take transit or pay through the nose for parking — NYC rates seem reasonable.

      The service district and its tax should not be eliminated. There is real value to both commercial and residential property in Tysons due to all of the transportation improvements that are being made their. A condo within a 1/3 mile of a rail station is more valuable than two miles away. Ditto for apartment rents. Residents near rail and the other transportation improvements need to pay for some of those. Ditto for commercial property. The service district and its tax is a good idea. There may need to be some type of offset, discount or deferral for those existing residents, but there is no reason to excuse future residents from paying for the benefits received.

      1. Good point regarding the through traffic on Rt. 7 and Rt. 123. I wonder if the technology would permit a lower toll (or no toll) for cars that are in transit through Tysons.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    America: Home of the free lunch.

    If the Tyson’s “densification” plan works, the surrounding property will skyrocket in value. Why not tax the landowners? They (and the developers who are being taxed) are the most likely to benefit.

    Taxing potential employers or their employees seems backwards to me. Once you make the “densification” decision you need to get the density – and that means attracting employers.

    I wish I still owned my old house in McLean. I’d pay the extra tax because I’d assume that the value of my house would rise rapidly as the density in nearby Tyson’s increases.

    1. I agree that property owners would benefit from the improvements and that they should pay part of the cost. Just remember, though, taxing residential real estate in Tysons pushes the cost of ownership higher, which reduces the incentive for people to move there, undermining the residential-commercial balance that needed to generate fewer, shorter trips. And passing on the cordon toll also means foregoing the opportunity to induce people to ride share, thus reducing the strain on main arterials.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        That’s what I mean by “home of the free lunch”. People want things but don’t want to pay for them.

        As for residential – commercial mix generating fewer, shorter trips – don’t hold your breath. Tyson’s is about 5 sq mi. Just under 20,000 people already live there. The odds of adding another 20,000 – 40,000 whatever with jobs in Tyson’s are limited. People who live and work in Manhattan often live outside of 5 sq mi of their home. They often take public transit because public transit is convenient and personal transportation is prohibitively expensive – based on tolls and parking.

        I like the idea of higher taxes on all property owners in the vicinity as well as a parking tax as TMT suggests.

        Everybody who benefits ought to pay something.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    One thing for sure – ALL the NoVa Metro stations need more parking. Lots more parking. People will pay to park. Today, people often don’t use Metro because there is nowhere to park at the Metro. Most people live too far from the Metro station to walk. So, if they need to go to downtown DC they’ll bypass Metro, drive into DC, fight traffic and pay a king’s ransom to park in DC. All because they doubt that they’ll find a place to park at the Metro station 2 miles from their home. And no – most will not walk to a bus stop and take the bus to the Metro station. It’s silly – more parking at Metro might be the best way to reduce rush hour congestion but the additional parking never gets built.

  4. I think Jim’s point about making housing more expensive is a good point. And I also think that the technology would be able to detect “pass-through” traffic but I’m wondering what the legal/constitutional limits would be on “selective” tolling…within a toll facility although I’ll admit HOV3 is a behavior that is rewarded and if we are allowed to reward/penalize behaviors ….

    but also.. think about this… you’re PENALIZING the people that would visit Tysons.. I’m not so sure the business owners or Fairfax leaders want that or the appearance of it..

  5. The Tysons Partnership board discussed a parking tax earlier this year (on an informal basis). The sentiment was generally negative. They would rather pay the additional property taxes. But they still have big TDM goals as set forth in Table 5 to the 2010 Comp Plan amendment.

  6. how would a parking tax be implemented?

    does that tax include private parking, garages, etc?

  7. Today, there is no DTR toll booth at the exit ramp to Route 7 going northwest towards Reston and Sterling. Guess what? Many drivers get off the DTR there, drive north and turn around at or near the McLean Bible Church. It’s a traffic mess in the mornings that makes it hard for local residents to get out of their neighborhoods. Complaints have been made for years, but ignored. This strongly suggests that it would be very difficult to put a toll on cars driving through or even into Tysons. A parking tax would be easier to administer.

    There is a strong push for interim parking near some of the Tysons rail stations. This would enable more people to ride the Silver Line. Interim parking around the R-B corridor stations existed for many years. When an area was ready for development, the parking lots disappeared. The same should occur in Tysons. But the landowners are afraid public pressure would force them to retain parking longer than a landowner wants.

    A parking tax should be levied on the spaces within the TOD. The owner/operator would then recover the costs in daily or monthly parking fees. Or the tax could apply to each car parked in the TOD areas between 6 am and 10 am to protect retail businesses.

  8. I think it the method of assessing the tax was electronic without manual collection, it would have a better chance of success.

    For instance, you could have a cordon toll that would not assess a tax until you had spent 15 or more minutes inside the cordon.

  9. People would need to buy the transponders to drive to or through Tysons. That will never happen. A parking tax is a second-best and more workable solution.

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