The Dulles Greenway has been back in the news lately, with another automatic toll increase coming. There has been a lot of debate about the best way to combat high tolls in the future. Here’s an update on where things stand.
As background, the Dulles Greenway is a privately owned toll road that runs twelve and a half miles from the Dulles Toll Road to the Leesburg Bypass. It is currently owned and operated by Toll Road Investors Partnership II (TRIP II), which is owned by Atlas Alteria (formerly Macquarie Atlas Roads) – a private toll road operator from Australia.
The State Corporation Commission (SCC) is the regulatory agency that handles the Greenway’s applications for toll increases. When the Greenway first opened, tolls were fairly low. They began steadily increasing over time, up to the current rates – which are over $6 during peak time regardless of how far your travel.
In 2008, Mark Herring – now the Attorney General of Virginia – sponsored a bill to guarantee annual toll increases at the Consumer Price Index +1% (previously, the Greenway gained toll increases from the SCC that were as high as CPI+5%). The Herring law is expiring in 2020, so there has been much discussion about what to do next.
Many things have changed since the Herring law was passed. As Loudoun has continued to grow, traffic congestion has gotten out of control – yet traffic on the Greenway has remained relatively constant because drivers avoid paying tolls. This arrangement works well for the Greenway because their original operating agreement with VDOT requires them to make costly infrastructure improvements if congestion worsens. One such instance is where the Greenway meets 267 eastbound. Improvements are currently in progress after several of us on the Board forced VDOT to follow through on the agreement.
Several years ago, the County joined former Delegate David Ramadan to challenge the Greenway’s tolls. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful because the Herring law superseded any challenge with the SCC. However, in that process, we did learn some very interesting things. For instance, the Greenway has made over $400,000 in political contributions to members of the General Assembly – all of which are coming out of toll coffers and are expected to be “covered” by revenue. The same is true for money spent on lobbyists, entertainment and other expenditures, including charitable contributions. The Greenway, unlike most regulated entities, expects rate payers to cover those costs.
In this past legislative session, an effort was made by Delegates Bell and Reid to essentially extend the Herring bill for a period of time. The Greenway was actively pursuing such an agreement. In exchange for this extension, they “offered” distance based pricing – which the SCC already recommended they implement. Unfortunately, the actual “offer” was modest at best – it would only apply off peak with a base rate of $1 per mile – meaning that very few Greenway motorists would actually see relief. The proposed language even contained an egregious provision that would require the Greenway to be reimbursed if they lost any revenue as a result of this “deal.” The Board of Supervisors was asked to support this agreement. I led the opposition and the motion was defeated 8-1, with only Chair Randall in support. The Board instead adopted a position requiring any future distanced based proposals be of “material benefit” to the majority of commuters.
At the end of the day, one of the basic problems is that the Greenway has far more debt than it cost to build the road. This debt is due to deliberate actions by the company. The Greenway argues that its debt must be covered by rate payers. It’s time for this charade to stop. Ultimately, the General Assembly did not pass any proposal to extend the Herring law, which at least gives us a chance to challenge future toll increases and utilize our new information. On the downside, a bill we did support – which would have specifically prohibited some of these non-essential expenditures and defined other provisions in the law – was defeated narrowly in committee. A majority of the Senate had signed on as co-patrons. The Senator that flipped her vote was in conversation with the Greenway’s lobbyist, in plain sight, in the moments leading up to the vote. (Now you’re starting to understand why I am so frustrated with the way things work in Richmond.)
Our job now is to be ready when the Herring bill expires. The law states that toll rates must not “materially discourage” use of the road. We have ample evidence that shows material discouragement, and that’s the case we must make. There’s no guarantee of a victory, but if we keep fighting my hope is that eventually this scheme will become too embarrassing for anyone to defend, and Loudoun drivers will quit being used to generate profits overseas.