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Commentary By Charles Hughes

Dynamic Tolls Reduce Congestion

Economics Regulatory Policy

New dynamic toll lanes operating on a stretch of Interstate 66 generated much coverage on their first day of operation. According to the Washington Post, the toll for one-way travel from the Beltway to Washington reached $34.50 during the morning rush hour. On the second day the toll peaked at $40, and on the third morning the toll reached a high of $23. Tolls during the afternoon peak period have been consistently lower than the morning commute, reaching a high of $12.50 the second day.

Solo drivers are charged for using new high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, during peak hours. The price, updated every six minutes, varies in response to traffic flow. These dynamic toll lanes are supposed to help with the significant amount of congestion along the route.

Congestion imposes substantial costs on Americans each year, in terms of both time and lost productivity. One survey estimated that Americans spent an hour each week stuck in traffic on commutes in 2016, and traffic jams cost U.S. drivers an average of $1,200 each year.

Dynamic tolls alleviate congestion problems. By charging more to use roads when traffic is heaviest, drivers pay a price for driving during peak hours and shift some trips to less-busy hours.

Carpoolers already had access to these HOT lanes, but, until now, solo drivers were not allowed to use them during the peak periods. Now, solo drivers can use these lanes for a fee. Solo drivers who prefer to drive without charges can continue to use the routes they had been using prior to the change. In 2022, when additional lanes open, cars will have to have at least three people to be exempt from tolls.

Virginia Department of Transportation Tolling Division Administrator David Caudill told WTOP that all entrances to the tolled express lanes will have at least two signs relaying price information to drivers. The signs have the toll amount for the shortest possible trip from the entrance, the longest possible trip, and an estimate for one middle-length trip. The VDOT also makes toll estimators available online and through an app.

Some drivers will alter the timing of their trips to avoid peak fares. Others may consider carpooling, because vehicles with two people can use the lanes without tolls during peak hours. Other drivers may switch to an alternate route. Dynamic tolls are confined to the times and direction that congestion poses the biggest problem: the weekday morning eastbound commute from 5:30 am to 9:30 am, and the weekday afternoon westbound commute from 3:00 am to 7:00 am.  During all other periods, lanes are free to use for all drivers.

Prices reflect congestion and traffic flow. The responsiveness of the tolls to increasing traffic and congestion can be seen in the evolution of the toll in that first morning. When tolling began at 5:30 am in the morning on the first day, the tolls were around $3.50, rising to about $10 in the first hour, before eventually reaching a peak of $34.50 at around 8:40 am. As the number of commuters fell closer to the start of the work day, the toll price fell accordingly and was back below $10 by 9:00 am.

The rollout of the dynamic tolls, and the high peak fare in its first morning of operation, has generated some backlash from unhappy commuters. Part of the problem that the tolls are designed to address is that under the previous framework, drivers had no price signals sending them information about the costs in terms of time and additional fuel they would lose by having a slow, congested commute. Over time, as more commuters learn which options work best for them traffic flow through the section will improve. Commuters and other travelers will be able to get where they need to go more quickly than before, and less time and money will to traffic.

The target average speed for the route is 55 mph during the morning commute. While the policy is still too new to be able to evaluate its effectiveness, the Virginia Department of Transportation reported that the average speed for the affected sections was 57 miles per hour, compared to 37 miles per hour at about the same time a year ago. On the second day the average speed was 54 mph. Initial indications are that the morning commute for this stretch at 9:00 am prior to the toll change took over 20 minutes, and for Monday and Tuesday it took 10 to 12 minutes. Return commutes in the afternoon saw a similar reduction.

The department has said that it is open to exploring whether lowering the target speed to reduce toll amounts and allow more cars into the system would be viable.

The revenue generated by these tolls will be used to pay for the operation of the lanes, and additional revenue will be used for projects intended to improve transportation for users of the I-66 corridor. After paying for operation of the toll lanes, additional revenue should be used to expand the highway and build more roads, or more lanes. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission might decide instead to allocate the additional revenue to improved bus service, intersection improvements, and additional park-and-ride capacity.

Commuters in the area have long had to deal with lengthy, unreliable commute times. The new dynamic tolls, by responding in real time to traffic conditions, could improve traffic flow in the area and alleviate the congestion problems. 

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes

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