Like many urban and suburban freeways around the country, I-66 gets congested. The local politicians want to do something about it. Sounds great! Unfortunately there is a disconnect between the desire to fix a problem and the actual solution.
Some local politicians are saying, “something has to be done.” Governor McAuliffe directed his Virginia Department of (Road) Transportation to devise “a plan that will reduce congestion on I-66 by increasing capacity and giving travelers more choices.”
So will their only chosen scheme: remove the green arrow free peak lane and build lanes with expensive tolls, actually work?
A traveler on I-95 decided to use the “More Choices” and chose to pay the expensive ($11.20) toll to go a few miles in the so-called Express Lanes. Here is their account, told to Dr. Gridlock at the Washington Post:
[This traveler’s comment came in last Monday, July 20.]
The I-95 Express Lanes are a complete failure in my opinion… I had a wedding to attend in Fredericksburg on Saturday, and was traveling south on I-95 around 11:00 AM. I got on at 123, and the regular lanes were the typical bumper to bumper.
I figured the Express Lanes would save me at least 15 minutes, so I shrugged off the $11.20 toll displayed in the hopes of making it on time. Little did I know that I would be sitting in even worse bumper to bumper traffic from Dumfries all the way to Garrisonville.
It was a complete disaster, and for a trip that used to take 2 hours on a really bad day, took 3 hours and cost me an extra $11.20. I can’t believe I got suckered into taking these lanes…NEVER AGAIN!!! I’m considering filing a complain requesting a refund, but I doubt they would do anything.” -http://live.washingtonpost.com/gridlock0727.html
So are the Express Lanes a solution or a flim-flam? Imagine paying a lot of money for a “consistent and reliable trip at highway speeds,” only to find out that the “Express Lanes” lead you to even more congestion and an exorbitant toll too. Is this highway robbery scheme a model to expand elsewhere?
Surely, for some folks willing to pay the tolls this may help in some places. Some folks carpooling with HOV-3 may also benefit. But these toll lanes must incentivize congestion to be successful, which is why the existing Express Lanes contracts need to penalize the taxpayers if too many carpoolers and buses use the lane. These same Comprehensive Agreement contracts also force taxpayers to pay the private toll companies for decades if improvements are made to the free lanes or parallel routes (e.g. improvements to Occoquan Bridge and US 1 specifically require taxpayers to compensate the private toll company). The big winners of the Express Lanes are the folks profiting from the tolls.
In short, in order to make commutes better for a select group, everybody else must suffer. Even the folks paying the terrible tolls suffer in congestion, as the above example shows. But will Virginia’s politicians begin to recognize bad public policy before it is too late?