Toll Express Lanes have been popping up in freeway medians around the country, in places like Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, Miami, Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, and of course Northern Virginia. Other projects are underway or planned in Colorado, Charlotte, and many more to come in the Bay Area. The implementations vary, some operate on a fixed toll schedule based on time of day, others use dynamic pricing. Most so far have been built by state agencies like CalTrans and the Georgia State Tollway Authority, some are Public-Private Partnerships like Virginia and U.S. 36 in Denver.
With so many Express Lane projects, we can learn from experiences elsewhere in the country. The Washington Post just published an article about the Atlanta experience on I-85. It has some tough lessons for Virginia. In Atlanta, tolls are hitting $10 each direction for a 15 mile stretch, while speeds have decreased below 45 mph. While the Georgia government has intervened with the pricing there, here in Virginia the concessionaire gets an unregulated monopoly on Express Lanes. VDOT’s contracts allow the operator to toll as much as they like, with no limits.
Government operation of express lanes — what Maryland does in all cases and what Virginia is planning to do only on I-66 inside the Beltway — provides some flexibility over private operation. A government authority will find it easier to be in the “mobility business,” using revenue to create financial incentives for alternative forms of commuting. Private companies have contractual obligations to the governments they work with, but beyond that, they’re responsible to their their stockholders and bondholders, rather than taxpayers.
Variable tolling is one way to manage congestion, but just one way, and a negative one at that.” – Washington Post