WASHINGTON - Northern Virginia lawmakers have called on the secretary of transportation to immediately force the Virginia Department of Transportation to stop charging drivers tolls along Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.
The tolls, which started on Monday, have climbed to as high as $40 during peak times of rush hour to travel 9 miles from the Beltway to Rosslyn, Virginia.
On Thursday, 16 lawmakers called for the tolls to stop immediately and for the old HOV lanes to return to I-66.
"If the tolls were like $4 we wouldn't be standing here. None of us knew the tolls were going to be this high, nobody foresaw this happening," Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen said. "Frankly this was an issue we had resolved in 2016, we had a very specific deal with the governor that we were going to make improvements and once those improvements were made, particularly inside the beltway. We were going to go forward with the tolling and the fact this got out of sequence, maybe we should have known better, but the fact is here we are."
Lawmakers point out that the high tolls on I-66 are only compounded by surrounding toll roads.
"I'm not sure I'd be satisfied with any toll price," Delegate John Bell of Loudoun County said. "People from my district and several others from my colleagues, we have people already taking the Dulles Greenway who are paying a very exuberant $6 toll each way, even for one exit. Then, on top of that, they are paying the Dulles Toll Road and then you throw in the 66 inside the Beltway. These are like extra taxes just to get back-and-forth to work."
Lawmakers also expressed their frustration that the I-66 tolls began before the added lanes and infrastructure was built to accommodate commuters.
"Some of the solutions in the transform 66 are very good, but we need to add the lanes for the solution to be there. We need the commuter lots. We need commuter buses. One of the poorest areas in Northern Virginia, in my district, in Sterling, there is no bus service to get to Metro. So if we want people to take the Metro we need to provide them bus service now not later," Bell said.
VDOT said the toll prices go up and down based on how many people are using the I-66 express lanes, and that has kept traffic down and moving, according to VDOT, up to 20 miles per hour faster in the last few days than compared to this same time last month.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth is one group in support of the tolls and said they should stay, releasing the following statement in part:
"Proposals to eliminate tolls and widen the entire highway are simply not viable. The cost would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and because of the phenomenon of 'generated travel,' an expanded highway like this would fill up in record time and traffic would crawl again. While we're sympathetic to the sticker shock drivers and politicians are experiencing this week, the combination of tolling, HOV, Metro, and new transit provides the most effective way to move the most people the most expeditiously as possible to and from work in the corridor. This comprehensive approach should stay in place."
VDOT said the new system cut travel time by several minutes and that the average round-trip toll price for the first four days was $14.50, which they said was lower than the estimated average toll rate of $17, which was discussed back in 2015. It should be noted that shorter commutes, ones that didn't go the full 9 miles, were included in VDOT's numbers.