Washington Commuters Ask: For Whom Does the E-ZPass Toll?



The big scandal dominating conversations inside the Beltway lately involves not indictments or forced resignations, but rather the new toll lanes on Interstate 66. During rush hour, the one-way tolls, which adjust on the fly according to traffic volume, have at times risen above $40. “Clean” cars such as hybrids also no longer have a free pass. To believe the local media—social and mainstream—the new system is a loss for fairness and environmental justice, and a win for rich commuters, who can buy their way out of gridlock.

First, a quick primer on the vehicular hell known as I-66. Originating in Northern Virginia and terminating near the Watergate Hotel, I-66 is one of the main arteries serving downtown Washington. An exurban driver heading into the city during morning rush hour will first encounter four eastbound lanes of pure traffic headache. Upon reaching the famed Beltway—the ring of interstates encircling Washington—I-66 narrows to two perpetually choked eastbound lanes. The reverse holds for a commuter heading west after work.

To control traffic volume, Virginia historically banned cars with only one person in them from the inner portion of I-66 during the morning and afternoon rush hours. Since the 1990s, however, these high-occupancy rules have had a small but popular exception. Owners of hybrids and other clean-fuel cars could obtain a special license plate giving them a pass to drive alone on I-66 during the restricted hours.

But when gasoline prices rose dramatically in the early 2000s, the number of cars qualifying for the clean-plate exception grew quickly. Other drivers and carpoolers revolted, angered by the sight of solo Volt, Prius and Tesla drivers merrily winging their way to work. The state stopped issuing clean plates after 2011, but roughly 18,000 drivers with them, more than a few of whom used I-66 daily, were grandfathered in.

The end to the clean-exemption finally arrived this month. Under the new rules, which went live Dec. 4, any vehicle occupied by one person can use I-66 at any time. But single drivers must pay a fluctuating toll, which rises with volume in order to keep traffic flowing at 55 miles an hour. Legacy clean-plate holders are not exempt, meaning their drivers are now treated just like everyone else.

Washingtonians have gone berserk over this change. The papers, airwaves and interwebs have been flooded with emotional stories about drivers of clean-plate cars suddenly faced with a cruel choice: pay anywhere from $5 to $40 each way on I-66, take slower alternative routes, carpool, or abandon their vehicles and take the bus or Metrorail. The toll is presented as a slap in the face of environmentally responsible citizens and an example of the privileges of the 1%.

Missing among this anecdotal outrage is any dispassionate analysis of the new system. Few reports have noted that the toll has freed thousands of single drivers from threat of serious fines—up to $1,000—for violating the defunct rush-hour ban. Few consider the time and carbon being saved. The Virginia Department of Transportation reported that during morning rush hour the first day after the switch, speeds on I-66 averaged 57 miles an hour, up from 37 last year. That means “dirty” cars spend less time revving in stop-and-go traffic.

Also oddly absent are discussions about the toll revenue. Estimates vary widely, but conservative forecasts suggest about $18 million will be collected each year. In an era when anything resembling a tax cut on the rich brings out pitchforks and torches, it’s strange to see such violent opposition to letting fat cats voluntarily surrender their money on I-66 every day.

Instead, much of the conversation has focused on the plight of drivers with clean-plate cars, a tiny segment of the commuting public that has coasted on an exemption granted decades ago. Some Virginia lawmakers have called for capping the tolls or even suspending the program until adjustments can be made, such as lowering the target speed to 45 miles an hour. Questions have been raised about whether the public was misled into thinking the tolls wouldn’t run much higher than $17. But the peak toll is an outlier. The average morning toll the first day was $10.70.

Reinstituting the clean-plate exemption doesn’t make sense: That would turn the old tertiary traffic benefit—a waiver from rush-hour restrictions—into a monetary subsidy worth thousands of dollars. Neither does it seem reasonable to suspend the tolls generally.

Even for folks like me who, as a matter of principle, generally oppose giving government access to more taxpayer money, the I-66 “scandal” is a pure head scratcher. In a town where being referred to as a numbers wonk is considered a badge of honor, it is shocking to see how quickly people dismiss rigorous analysis on the merest suggestion that the rich are pushing aside longtime enviro-friendly citizens.

Then again, little is surprising in Washington these days. Especially the traffic, which will inevitably stink, regardless of tolls.

Mr. Finch is an attorney in Northern Virginia.

Appeared in the December 16, 2017, print edition.

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