Higher tolls pushing many off the Dulles Toll Road

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Higher tolls pushing many off the Dulles Toll Road
By Lori Aratani
May 31, 2014
Washington Post

When the Dulles Toll Road was built in 1984, it was meant to provide quick local access to the interchanges between the Capital Beltway and Dulles International Airport. An average of 327,296 vehicles traverse the roadway daily. But after five straight years of toll increases, many drivers have decided that the convenience, such that it is, is no longer worth the cost.

“You talk to people and they go, ‘Oh, hell, no — I don’t use the toll road,’ ” said Tammi Petrine, a longtime Reston resident who used to use it but now avoids it whenever possible.

Burt Rosenberg, too, has sworn off the roadway.

“It’s the principle,” said Rosenberg, also from Reston, who uses the road only when he’s running late. “I just can’t encourage them, or they’ll just keep raising it.”

Commuters say that avoiding the 14-mile toll road has forced them to get creative, incorporating back roads and side streets into their daily drive. They compare notes with co-workers and neighbors — though not all are willing to share their routes. Some confess to using the Dulles Access Road to get around, even though the free roadway is supposed to be used only by people with airport business. Airport officials are cracking down on the practice, known as backtracking.

The most recent toll hike took effect in January. Now, most toll road users pay $3.50 per trip.

“It’s just crazy,” said Reston resident Jim Nagle. “If you just use the toll road for one round trip [a day], you’re spending $140 a month on tolls.”

For some drivers, the beef is not just the higher tolls. It’s also the fact that those dollars and quarters are going to pay for a rail line that they may never use.

That would be the Silver Line, the first phase being an 11.4-mile segment that will extend Metro service to Tysons Corner and Reston starting sometime this summer. A second, 11-mile segment, expected to open in 2018, will extend Metro service to Dulles International Airport and farther into Loudoun County.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, state of Virginia, federal government, and Loudoun and Fairfax counties are contributing to the project’s cost, but close to half of the $5.6 billion tab to build the Silver Line is being paid for by toll-road users. And that is why tolls have to be raised.

Officials at MWAA — which operates the toll road and is managing construction of the Silver Line — say they are sympathetic and are doing their best to temper the increases. They note that an additional $300 million in funding from the state and a low-interest loan from the federal government mean tolls likely won’t have to be increased again until 2018.

MWAA says the additional funding also means that future toll increases are likely to come less often and won’t be as steep. Still, barring another financial windfall, tolls will increase in coming years. According to an analysis by MWAA, by 2043, it may cost $11.25 per trip to drive on the toll road.

MWAA officials say people need to think big picture.

“Ultimately this project will benefit everyone in this region in terms of economic development and in particular for drivers who are going to see less congestion,” said MWAA spokesman Chris Paolino.

But that’s little comfort to folks who may find themselves paying $35 a week — more than $1,800 a year — to drive the road.

Jessa Foor of Sterling said rising tolls prompted her to leave her job in Arlington County for one in Reston, closer to home.

“Most of the reason I left my job is that I was paying a ridiculous amount of money to spend two hours on the road,” she said. “It’s one thing when you’re paying for a toll road that’s moving constantly, but when you’re paying and sitting in stopped traffic? I don’t want to pay to just sit there.”

Foor, a marketing executive, estimates that the shift has saved her more than $4,500 a year in tolls, gas and maintenance for her car.

And the reduction to her stress level? Priceless.

Not surprisingly, statistics show that as tolls increase, the number of annual toll road transactions decreases. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of transactions on the toll road declined by more than 5 million.

MWAA officials say a drop in usage after a toll increase is to be expected. According to projections, Paolino said, the agency expects the number to rebound.

And the dropoff hasn’t hurt the agency’s bottom line. MWAA made more than $127 million in toll revenue in 2013, compared with $88 million in 2010 — an increase of over $39 million.

But residents and elected officials worry the vehicles bailing on the toll road are clogging local surface roads.

“Simple economics tells you there’s going to be less usage and the cars that don’t use it are going to have to use alternative roads that run through our communities,” said Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), who said he’s heard from constituents about more congested streets.

Virginia transportation officials, however, say they have no evidence that traffic volume has increased. Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said there are no plans to look at the impact toll increases are having on surrounding roads.

Petrine scoffs at the idea that traffic volume hasn’t increased. She can see it from the window of her home.

“I have been stunned at the amount of traffic that is now using Lawyers [Road],” she said of the road that runs parallel to the toll road and is a popular alternative for people trying to get from Reston to Vienna or Tysons. Others say they’ve seen more traffic on Leesburg Pike, a popular north-south artery, and on Beulah and Lewinsville roads.

Petrine said the additional traffic has changed how she structures her day. She avoids scheduling morning appointments with clients. Once 3 p.m. rolls around, she simply stays put. And nothing is a straight shot anymore, because she finds herself “jig-jagging” along streets.

“It’s really crazy that with our limited access in and out of Reston, they then saddle us with these crazy tolls that are making people jump the toll road,” she said.

Nagle’s commute from Reston to Bethesda can take an extra 20 to 30 minutes because he uses side streets instead of the toll road. He’s mum about his exact route, not wanting to tip off other drivers, but says it eventually gets him from his home in west Reston to Lewinsville Road near McLean.

He said he’s all for quality public transportation but doesn’t think making toll road users pay for a Metro line is fair.

“I’m stubborn, and I’m cheap,” said Nagle, who was one of the plaintiffs in an unsuccessful lawsuit that challenged the state’s decision in 2008 to transfer management of the toll road from VDOT to MWAA. A second suit, which challenged the use of tolls to fund the rail project, was recently dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

John Pinkman, who owns the Pinkman Baseball Academy in Sterling, said he hears complaints from his clients about the rising tolls. For his part, he does everything he can to avoid the toll road. And when he’s forced to use it, he’s not pleased.

“You can put me down as an angry toll road user,” he said. “It’s not that I’m cheap or don’t have the ability to pay. I just wonder, when is it all going to stop?”

A drop in usage
Total number of toll road transactions

Year     Transactions
2009    109 million
2010    104 million
2011    101 million
2012    100 million
2013    99 million