Bacon's Rebellion

Hey, I-66 Whiners: Join a Friggin’ Carpool!

Interstate 66 east at the Capital Beltway in Virginia. Jan. 2016. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

The Interstate 66 toll lanes opened yesterday in Northern Virginia, and dynamically priced tolls during the morning commute hit $34.50 for the 10-mile stretch from the Beltway to Washington, D.C., reports the Washington Post.

The high price for the tolls — among the highest that drivers have paid for the privilege of traveling on a state-owned highway in the United States, the Post observes — induced the usual hand wringing. Reports the Post:

“I drove onto I-66 around 8:10 this morning to Washington and my one-way toll was $17.25 — which I at first thought I’d misread,” Justin Cole said. “With tolls reportedly climbing to around a daily one-way peak of $34.50, that is going to introduce a real hardship for people on low wages or working in the nonprofit or public sector.”

Others took to social media to express their outrage, with the hashtags #I66tolls and #highwayrobbery trending.

“This is like a bad telethon, watching the number go higher and higher all morning,” tweeted commuter Cameron Gray.

“The tolls on I-66 are being increased so only the 1% can afford to use it. Time to get that private jet,” said another.

“It’s price gouging,” said Virginia Del.-elect Danica Roem (D), who won office last month on a platform that focused on traffic in her suburban Prince William County district. She said she will push to cap tolls in the coming General Assembly session.

“We are talking about $34.50 for a few miles inside the Beltway. That’s clearly price gouging,” Roem said. “Where else in the country do you pay a $34.50 toll to go somewhere?”

I have to say, a $34 toll for a 10-mile trip is extravagantly high. I would never pay it. Here’s a tip to the whiners: Don’t have to pay it either! Just drive on I-66 like you always have! There are no fewer lanes than there were before. Was traffic on I-66 this morning any worse than it was last week? No? Then get over it!

As long as you’re not the person paying them, high toll fares are good news. When the state covers its cost of setting up the HOT lane infrastructure, it will devote surplus revenue to multimodal improvements — buses, Metrorail, bicycle, pedestrian facilities — that take commuters off I-66 and make the highway a little less congested for everyone else.

As for the proposal by Del.-elect Danica Boem, D-Manassas, to cap the tolls, it’s time for an economics lesson. The tolls are driven by demand. If the toll reaches $34, that’s because people are willing to pay that much for a quicker trip. If you cap the toll at, say, $10, too many people will crowd the HOT lanes, and average driving speed could well drop below the guaranteed 45 miles per hour. That would kill the reward for ride sharing, and fewer ride shares would mean more cars on the road.

Carpools, vans and buses get to use the HOT lanes for free. If you really, really, really want to use the HOT lanes, then stop your bellyaching, relinquish your privilege as driver of a single-occupancy vehicle, and join a friggin’ carpool!

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