Public May Be Open to More Tolls on Area Roadways, But New Federal Rules Limit Scope

Sep 9, 2013

A regional network of express toll lanes on area highways -- giving drivers and transit vehicles a way to bypass traffic back-ups in regular lanes, especially during peak hours -- could garner enough public support to be implemented in the Washington region, according to a two-year study by the Transportation Planning Board.

The final report detailing the study's findings is due out later this month. It incorporates comments received from the Federal Highway Administration, the study's sponsor, following the agency's review of a draft report released by the TPB in January.

The findings of the study point to a regional network of express toll lanes, like those already in place on the Capital Beltway in Virginia, as the most palatable of three potential approaches to road-use pricing that study participants were asked to consider. Road-use pricing is a way to manage worsening congestion and raise new revenue for much-needed transportation improvements by charging drivers new fees for their use of roadways. The fees would replace or help supplement traditional funding sources, like gas taxes or vehicle registration fees.


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Under the express toll lanes scenario considered as part of the TPB study, at least one lane in each direction on all major highways in the region would be tolled at rates that change based on traffic volume in order to ensure free-flowing travel speeds. In a number of locations, one or more existing, non-tolled lanes would be converted into express toll lanes, an approach that would help keep the cost of implementation lower than building all-new lanes.

The scenario also calls for a 500-mile network of bus rapid transit, or BRT, to operate on the congestion-free lanes, offering reliable, high-frequency transit service, especially in areas that currently lack access to such options. The new bus service would be paid for in part by the tolls collected from auto drivers using the lanes.

The TPB study engaged more than 300 Washington area residents in extended conversations about the three different approaches to pricing. Sixty percent said they would "support" or "strongly support" the express toll lane scenario. But they said that sufficient alternatives -- either non-tolled lanes on the same highway, or high-quality transit, like an expanded Metro system or new bus rapid transit lines -- would have to be made available for those unwilling or unable to pay the new fees.

The scenario received more support than either of the other two that participants considered: using in-vehicle GPS devices to charge drivers per-mile fees for the use of any road or street in the region, with higher fees on more heavily traveled routes; or requiring drivers to pay new flat fees to enter highly congested zones, like downtown Washington, Tysons Corner, or Silver Spring.

Participants saw the GPS-based mileage fee approach as government overreach, and as being so complicated it would add new burdens to people's daily lives and be impossible to implement or enforce. The zone-based approach, they said, wouldn't go far enough in solving the region's congestion or transportation funding challenges.

Instead, they more often opted for the express toll lanes approach because they said it would give drivers the option to participate, rather than requiring them to do so, and would provide valuable new alternatives for avoiding traffic back-ups.

During the course of the two-year TPB study, in the summer of 2012, Congress passed legislation reauthorizing federal spending on transportation. The law included a new provision opening the door to tolls on any Interstate highway in the country, but only if the number of non-tolled, general purpose lanes on those highways were not reduced. The implication of the provision is that tolls can only be charged on new lanes constructed alongside existing, non-tolled lanes, on lanes that were previously designated as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, or on existing, non-tolled lanes so long as enough new non-tolled lanes were built in order to keep the total number of toll-free lanes the same.

In response to the new rules, in the spring of 2013, the TPB revised the express toll lanes scenario, which it has been studying for several years as the "CLRP Aspirations" scenario. The revised version no longer includes any instance in which the number of non-tolled lanes would be reduced, instead charging tolls only on newly constructed lanes or on lanes that are currently designated as HOV lanes. The change adds considerable new net costs to implementing the scenario.

Despite the additional cost, the TPB is advancing the new version of the express toll lanes scenario as one of two long-term strategies in its Regional Transportation Priorities Plan, an effort to identify a limited number of near-term, ongoing, and long-term strategies that offer the greatest potential for addressing the region's most pressing transportation challenges.

As the TPB looks to advance road-use pricing as a tool for addressing ongoing regional challenges, it must take into account new federal rules that limit the extent to which existing Interstate highways can be tolled. For now, the vision of creating a regional network of express toll lanes that offer drivers and transit vehicles a way to bypass traffic back-ups will have to remain limited to approaches that do not reduce the number of non-tolled lanes available to the driving public.

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