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Tolling Points

Leadership Academy Faculty Member Analyses Success of I-66 Toll Lane

By: 
IBTTA

A good friend of IBTTA is out with a smart, thoughtful analysis of the “very important economic experiment” the Virginia Department of Transportation undertook when it introduced rush hour tolls on Interstate 66, inside the Washington, DC Beltway.

It was a great moment for the tolling and transportation community when Robert Puentes’ opinion piece appeared in the Washington Post December 15. It’s even better news that Puentes, President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, is on the faculty for IBTTA’s 2018 Leadership Academy, February 11-16, 2018 in Washington, DC.

“We always think of the Leadership Academy as one of the exciting moments in the IBTTA calendar when our industry’s future leaders get together to learn, share their own knowledge, and build their professional networks,” says IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones. “But it’s also a place where tomorrow’s generation gets to connect with today’s transportation thought leaders. That’s why we’re thrilled to have Robert as part of this year’s Academy.”

The Experiment

Puentes recounts the elements of a bold experiment that should change the way transportation planners think about tolling.

  • The rush hour toll applies to solo drivers, but not to vehicles with multiple occupants.

  • The peak toll of $34.50 for those solo drivers made national news on the day the road opened.

  • But 55% of rush hour users paid an average of about $10, and the carpoolers who accounted for about 38% of the traffic on the lane paid no toll at all. “In other words, these travelers enjoyed the same no-traffic, high-speed trip as those who paid the maximum fee,” Puentes notes.

  • With at least two people in each carpool, the lane carried thousands of people for free. “That is more than the average number of riders who board the subway at the Ballston Metro station in Arlington each morning.”

  • And while the lane sped up I-66 significantly in both directions, the tolls had only minimal impact on alternate routes that might have been expected to absorb extra traffic as a result.

In other words—the sky didn’t fall when the managed lanes were introduced. The tolled facility didn’t become a dreaded “Lexus Lane”, where only the wealthiest travel. And, the community benefited from the added capacity.

In fact, the lane exceeded the affordable use of a well-travelled suburban subway stop that also operates on a user-pay model. It delivered faster, more reliable mobility—exactly what users quite rightly expect from their toll roads.

Lessons Learned

The most exciting parallels and lessons learned were at the system level.

“Virginia's dynamic pricing strategy is the first of its kind in the nation for a highway such as I-66, but it is not at all unique in transportation,” Puentes writes. “It's exactly the approach private companies such as airlines take when they charge more to operate around the Thanksgiving holiday, and what Uber and Lyft do when demand peaks for rides home late on a Saturday night.”

In other words—you pay for the mobility you need, when and where you need it, with a general purpose option available if that’s your preference.

Puentes also has a unique take on dynamic pricing as an alternative to what he calls the “Sisyphean strategy” of throwing money at new general purpose roads that eventually fill up, creating a new, bigger congestion challenge. A congestion-based charge keeps traffic flowing, ultimately encouraging users to consider alternatives like carpooling, ride-sharing, telecommuting, or off-peak travel schedules.

“Virginia should be applauded,” he concludes, “for trying something bold and different to deal with intractable transportation problems in the region.”

Bold. Different. Dealing with intractable problems. It sounds like exactly the focus IBTTA has in mind when the Leadership Academy convenes. It helps explain why we’re so glad that Robert Puentes will be in the room.

Click here for more on IBTTA’s 2018 Leadership Academy, February 11-16, 2018 in Washington, DC.

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