If you took a bus from New York to Washington Wednesday, a 230-mile drive, and then turned around and came back, you still might not spend as much as some Virginians paid Tuesday to drive there from 10 miles away.
Just after 8 a.m., the price to take the new express lanes on Interstate 66 from the Beltway to downtown Washington reached $40. By the time the morning rush ended at 9:30, the toll was $15.75 — a comparative pittance, but still almost enough for a one-way ticket from New York.
The peak price — which barreled past the $34.50 recorded Monday, the lanes’ first day of operation — was one of the highest for a toll road anywhere in the United States. But transit officials said the system was working as designed: keeping traffic moving by encouraging people to car-pool or take alternate routes.
From 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, about 12,000 vehicles used the express lanes, and the average speed was 54 mph — much faster than the 37 mph average in a similar period last December, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. During the Monday morning rush, the average speed was 57 mph, and drivers were able to cover the 9-mile stretch in 10 to 12 minutes, compared with 15 to 25 minutes on a typical day, the department said.
The toll prices, which change every six minutes, depend on the volume of traffic and the distance traveled. Drivers traveling the full 9 miles from the Beltway to downtown Washington around 8 a.m. Tuesday paid $40, but someone driving in the other direction at 4:15 p.m. would have paid less than $7. The peak price lasted only one six-minute period, the Department of Transportation said.
“As long as people are willing to pay, that is what will drive the tolling,” Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s transportation secretary, said Tuesday at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, The Washington Post reported.
The tolls are in effect only on weekdays, from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 to 7 p.m. westbound. Drivers with passengers do not have to pay; on Tuesday, 41 percent of vehicles during the morning rush fit that bill. And before Monday, most single-occupancy vehicles had not been allowed on that stretch of I-66 during rush hour at all.
“No one has to pay a toll,” Layne said at the board meeting. “You simply could have put another person in your car.”
The backlash quickly took on a political dimension, with Republican officials accusing the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, of betraying commuters. The Virginia Republican Party noted with displeasure that the tolls had appeared only after the Democratic candidate, Ralph S. Northam, won last month’s election to succeed McAuliffe.
Tim Hugo, the chairman of the Republican caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates, said in a statement that he and others in his party had “worked in good faith” with McAuliffe and Layne based on assurances that toll prices would average $6 to $7.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of days is unacceptable,” Hugo said.
But the criticism was not confined to Republicans. Danica Roem — a Democrat who was elected last month to the House of Delegates after campaigning on the issue of traffic congestion — said the tolls seen this week amounted to price gouging and called for a cap. Another Democrat, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, called the pricing “outrageous” and noted that not everyone had options.
Transportation Department officials have said that it will take time for traffic patterns to settle into a new normal, and that the prices are likely to drop. Spokeswomen for the department did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday evening.
Tolls that change based on time and demand, known as dynamic pricing, have become more common in recent years. When traffic gets heavy, the price increases to encourage people to car-pool, take public transportation or choose a less crowded route. It’s the same basic supply-and-demand principle employed by ride-sharing services like Uber, and it has been used or considered in places from Southern California to Singapore.
Dynamic pricing is one form of congestion pricing, which aims to reduce traffic by charging more in peak places, at peak times. As mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg fought a decade ago to charge a flat fee for vehicles entering Manhattan at certain hours. The idea, which met with fierce opposition and died in the State Assembly in 2008, has recently been stirring again.
But even Bloomberg — who wanted a fee of $8 for cars and $21 for trucks — never contemplated a toll of $40.