Tolling group: Va. express lanes ‘a glimpse into the future’

Tolling group: Va. express lanes ‘a glimpse into the future’
© Mario Ortiz

New toll lanes on Interstate 95 in northern Virginia are “a glimpse into the future” of transportation funding, the group that lobbies for more tolling on U.S. roads in Washington is arguing. 

Twenty-nine miles of new High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes south of Washington that were developed in a partnership between Virginia transportation officials and a private company known as Transurban opened to drivers this week, although fees for driving in the lanes will not start being collected until Dec. 29. 

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) said the new route, known as “95 Express Lanes,” are an example of how tolling can be used to replace federal money that has become hard to come by for building new transportation projects. 

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“The project is a great example of how to get highway capacity built and ease local gridlock, even when traditional funding mechanisms aren’t available,” the group said. “And because the road serves the Washington metropolitan area, it will stand as a dynamic success story for any Member of Congress traveling this corridor, one of the busiest on the east coast.” 

Tolling advocates have pushed Congress to lift a current ban on states placing tolls on existing highway lanes as lawmakers have struggled to come up with new ways to finance infrastructure construction in the U.S. 

The traditional source for paying for transportation projects has been revenue collected by the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and it has struggled to keep pace with rising construction costs as cars have become more fuel efficient. 

The federal government spends about $50 billion per year on road and transit projects under the current transportation funding bill that is scheduled to expire in May. However, the gas tax brings about $34 billion per year at its current rate.

Groups like the IBTTA have said that tolling could be used to help close the gap if states are allowed to install additional tolls on existing roads. 

Present law requires states to construct new lanes on highways that they want to add tolls to. Virginia officials converted 20 miles of existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that were free for drivers who carpool to tolling lanes for the HOT project and added a third lane, as well as nine additional all new miles, to meet the federal tolling requirements. 

The result is a 29 mile network that connects to HOT toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in the Washington suburbs that were opened in 2012. 

The new toll lanes will still be free to drivers who meet the carpooling rules, but individual drivers will now have the option to pay to access the lanes that were previously off-limits unless they had three passengers in their cars. 

Opponents of expanding tolling in the U.S. have pushed back against the idea of easing the restrictions on existing highways, arguing that charging drivers for roads that are currently free will result in increased traffic on alternative routes. 

The anti-tolling Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates offered only tepid support for the HOT lanes, saying they were different than proposals that would add tolls to entire highways that are currently free. 

“Use of tolls to build new roads is acceptable so long as existing roads and interstates remain as toll-free options," ATFI spokesman Julian Walker said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

"The potential success of the Express Lanes lies in the fact that they are an option and therefore don’t impose additional financial burden on travelers who use the existing road," Walker continued. "Where tolling goes wrong is when the toll-free option is taken away, forcing commuters to pay for the use of a road that previously was toll-free.”

The tolling advocacy group said meanwhile that the new I-95 system will be a win for all drivers one of the most heavily-congested corridors in the U.S. 

“In an era of tight budgets and partisan (as opposed to traffic) gridlock, it’s no news to IBTTA members that tolling is often one solid performing funding option to fund highway construction, maintenance, or expansion,” the group said. 

-This story was updated with new information at 11:56 a.m.