BUCKLE up, Beltway drivers, you have entered the toll zone.
The Interstate 66 toll lanes opened in Northern Virginia last Monday, and it’s safe to say drivers suffered some sticker shock.
On the opening day, Monday, Dec. 4, the I–66 toll price spiked to $34.50 to travel the 10 miles of electronically tolled interstate. The next day, the toll jumped to a high of $40.
Drivers, critics and politicians cried foul.
“It’s price gouging,” Virginia Del.-elect Danica Roem told the Washington Post, adding that she would look to get a cap put on toll prices.
After a week of listening to the uproar over toll prices, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne responded in a news release.
“Contrary to the continued political rhetoric of critics, I–66 Inside the Beltway Express Lanes tolls have been based on sound planning and with the ultimate goal of improving travel for everyone,” said the outgoing secretary, adding that the toll lanes are “about unlocking gridlock on I–66 as Governor McAuliffe pledged.”
Layne also took up the subject during the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting last week.
Layne, who is nearing the end of his tenure as transportation secretary, said expects federal reductions in transportation spending are going to put more pressure on states to pay for infrastructure work.
“If you’ve got another way that we can move these billion-dollar projects forward without using tolling and regional monies, I’m all for it,” he said. “Because all I see as options are do nothing or move forward under those parameters. And that’s what we’ve done.”
VDOT pointed out in the release that travel times during the Dec. 4 peak on I–66 were 10 to 30 minutes better than the same time a year ago.
The highway department also noted that more than 29,000 cars used the express lanes on opening day, with nearly 10,000 carpoolers getting a free ride on the toll lanes.
Down here in the Fredericksburg region, drivers of the Interstate 95 and 495 express lanes know the toll drill: Drive the lanes alone and pay the piper; travel with at least three people in the vehicle and enjoy the free ride.
And those toll prices on I–66?
I–95 express lanes users have been there, done that.
This column recently ran figures tallied by a Stafford County resident who gave up commuting because of the costs.
His calculation came out to $26.30 to travel to work and $35.55 to travel back home, or $526 monthly to get to work and $711 to get home, totaling $1,237 monthly.
The recovering commuter found that if he hadn’t gotten off the toll wagon, his commute would run him about $15,000 a year.
There are those who fire back that drivers have a choice whether to be a toll paying customer or not.
That’s true. You can go slow and sit in traffic or pay the piper and zoom on through.
It’s the new American way.