Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

A quick comment on I-66 tolling

-- Transform 66 in Northern Virginia

This week, rush hour tolling has been introduced to I-66, the east-west Virginia interstate that provides access to DC. 

In advance of the launch, there has been a fair amount of communication about it, including full-page ads in the Washington Post and in other media (don't recall seeing tv ads, but then since the November 2016 election, I don't watch tv news very much), and media coverage ("Interstate 66 tolling starts Monday. Here's what you need to know," Washington Post).

I've written about this in the context of corridor management planning ("Transportation network interruptions as an opportunity: Part 2") and indirectly in terms of conceptualizing a broad plan of improvement of the Northern Virginia transit network in the context of the Silver Line extension ("Using the Silver Line as the priming event, what would a transit network improvement program look like for NoVA?").

As an occasional driver, of course I prefer to not have to pay tolls, but as a planner, I recognize why you want to charge tolls, not only to raise the monies necessary to pay for transportation infrastructure, but also to provide better "cues" to encourage more optimal choices in the context of supply, demand, and infrastructure supply constraints.

Transportation is one of those areas where consumers and elected officials especially want to believe that it has nothing to do with economics. 

The reality is that the failure to apply economic decision-making to transportation creates "market failures" a/k/a "congestion," although this is abetted by what I call transportation physics and the difference between personal mobility and mass transit--the latter uses space much more efficiently.

One 40-foot bus transports as many people as are usually carried in about 60 cars.
Amount of space required to transport the user the same number of passengers by car, bus, or bicycle

The thing about the I-66 toll program is that it contravenes the typical experience across the US in terms of having specific toll roads, especially HOT -- High Occupancy Toll -- lanes.

Other than HOT lanes, the DC metropolitan area has two toll roads in Northern Virginia (Dulles Toll Road, Dulles Greenway, and people aren't particularly enamored with them, and many users lack alternatives. (Elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia there are various bridge and tunnels that are tolled, and other tolled roads, including a stretch of I-95 towards the Maryland-Delaware border.)

Typically, HOT lanes add capacity but restrict access to those willing to pay the price to use the lanes, while still providing access to lanes that aren't tolled. The idea is that the toll is variable, designed to maintain the flow of high speed traffic. As capacity is absorbed by toll payers, the toll rises in order to discourage people from using the lanes, in order to maintain a relatively high speed.

On day one of new tolls along I-66 inside the Capital Beltway, climbed over $30. (WTOP/Dave Dildine, "I-66 afternoon tolls moderate after ‘unfair’ $40 morning high."

The I-66 tolling project hasn't added any capacity.  Heretofore, rush hour access to I-66 has been limited to vehicles with two or more occupants (with exceptions for hybrid vehicles and people traveling to Dulles Airport), and the entire freeway was treated as "High Occupancy Vehicle" lanes.

The toll project has removed the HOV restriction.  Now, previously non-qualified drivers -- single occupant vehicles -- can use the road during rush periods, if they pay.  HOV-2 users can still drive for free, and hybrid vehicles no longer have an HOV-exception.

What the tolling project does is increase demand to use the road, with no increase in lane capacity.  Normally, HOT lanes add capacity in return for restricting access to people willing to pay for it.

Looking west on Lee Highway, lines of cars split between taking I-66 vs. staying on Lee Highway What the project during rush hour Monday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post).

So yes, compared to other toll lanes in the area, tolls on I-66 are likely to be "outlandish" ("Day 3 I-66 toll hits $23. Are commuters finding alternatives?" and "I-66 express lanes debut with $34.50 toll, among the highest in the U.S.," Washington Post) because now more cars will be competing for the same amount of road space.

And as Charlie points out in a comment, it communicates a major problem with "Public Private Partnerships," in that they are contractual and the operator is typically uninterested in being flexible. 

Furthermore, concessionaires are somewhat insulated from bad press even if they get it, because they have contracts that are pretty much impregnable.

Although it can come back to haunt the elected officials who approved the contracts.

The I-66 project is even trickier because at one level, the State of Virginia wants to encourage business to locate in Virginia instead of DC, so the outlandish pricing is a "feature, not a bug" to encourage businesses to leave DC so that their employees "don't have to" drive the toll road.

At the same time, there aren't transit improvements, at least in the short and intermediate term, such as those suggested in the Meissner-Layman idealized transit network map--extending the Orange Line west, creating a separated Silver Line, adding a new "Pink Line"--giving people alternatives, and increasing "transportation infrastructure supply" in significant ways.

Conceptual Future integrated rail transit service network for the Washington DC National Capitol Region. Design by Paul J. Meissner.  Concept by Richard Layman and Paul Meissner.

In fact, were Virginia to extend the Orange Line west, they'd have to pay penalties to the concessionaire.

However, what I would have done, were I the concessionaire, is have had a "free" one- or two-week introductory period with the toll pricing being communicated in real-time, so people would have a much better sense for how much the tolls were going to be.

Even so, it's not going to help DC, and DC has no ability to influence the process.  By contrast, in California, most toll roads are run by the counties or Joint Powers Authorities that are cross-jurisdictional.

And the separate programs for each of the "states" -- DC, Maryland, and Virginia -- don't seem to be too well coordinated. 

Orange and Riverside Counties in California offer a significant contrast, where they jointly manage the the SR-91 toll corridor--a corridor management plan. The toll road started out as an exclusive Orange County project, but have ben extended by Riverside County for 8 miles, to better manage the road resource and add capacity ("91 Express Lanes in Orange County paved way for new toll lanes opening Monday in Riverside Orange County Register). The counties as operators coordinate management, tolling, collections, etc.

Such integration and coordination seems a foreign concept here. Cf. "The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association"

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At 2:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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