Tolls increased 40% on Dulles Toll Road, northern Virginia

January 2, 2010

Typical tolls on the Dulles Toll Road in northern Virginia rose from $1.25 to $1.75 or 40%  this morning (Friday Jan 1). This is the first of three annual toll increases aimed to raise tolls 80% by 2012 that were formally adopted by the toll operator - Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) - last year.

This morning tolls for cars at the mainline plaza near Tysons Corner rose from 75c to $1.00 and ramp tolls rose a quarter also to go from 50c to 75c. Most trips involve both a mainline toll and a ramp toll, although some short on-&-off trips in the western half only encounter a single ramp toll.

The toll increases are geared to supporting borrowing of $2.7b on behalf of a $5.25b metrorail project starting construction in the center of the corridor. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has said in presentations that toll revenues have to rise from $65m in 2008, and a prospective $64m in 2009 (1.17x $54.7m to end-Oct) to $87m in 2010. The announced toll increases plus similar future ones recommended by consultants Wilbur Smith Associates are due to take revenue to $107m in 2012, $145m in 2015, and $220m in 2020 to cover debt service costs being incurred on behalf of the rail transit line.

Operating expenses are $24m and only estimated to grow to $34m by 2020, so the Toll Road looks like a cash cow for the MWAA if tolls can successfully be increased as proposed by the consultants.

Under MWAA's finance plan about half toll revenues will go to the rail project, the other half being used for tollroad operations, maintenance and improvements.

The traffic and revenue study produced by Wibur Smith for MWAA projects 25c increases at the mainline plaza every year  through 2016 and 75c increases every three, four and five years thereafter, and 25c increases in ramp tolls every three years.

Typical tolls (main + ramp) will go from $1.75 this year to $3.25 in 2015, to $5.00 in 2020 to $7.50 in 2030.

Traffic in slow decline

The historic high in traffic numbers was 2004-5 with around 312k/day transactions (Trips are slightly over half the transactions number given close to two tolls per trip.)

Traffic on the DTR as measured by toll transactions is expected to decline from a daily 295k transactions at present to 280k in 2010, 274k in 2015, 260k in 2020 and 252k from the mid-2030s onward.  (The further out you get the more fanciful such projections become so we don't even mention the late 2040s!)

Reduced traffic promises better flow

There is currently congestion on the DTR in peakhours so the decline in traffic is good news for its revenue potential, since the tollroad should be able to offer improved service through increased time savings - and hence offer better value for the toll dollar - as traffic declines. 

Increasing capacity beyond beyond 4 lanes each direction and improving interchanges and road approaches to enhance capacity would be quite expensive and is clearly precluded by the debt being taken on for the rail project.

Congestion pricing - or higher toll rates during peak hours - seems a no-brainer, but was not part of Wilbur Smith's study for MWAA.

Toll rates per mile vary greatly

2010 toll rates for the length of the tollroad (14 miles, 23km) are only 12.5c/mile for cars, a pretty modest rate for a modern urban tollroad. From the Beltway or Tysons to the end at the Greenway toll plaza - with the same $1.75 toll - they work out 13c to 15c/mile depending on which entry is used.

More typical tolls are from Reston Parkway to the eastern end of the DTR (9mi, 14.5km) just shy of 20c/mile or Fairfax County Parkway (10 miles) to I-66 17.5c/mile.

A trip from the Beltway to Hunter Mill Rd (Rte 674) however is just over 30c/mile - the maximum per-mile rate at present by our calculation.  Wiehle Av to the Beltway is 7.2mi so a per-mile toll of 24c.

These are in the same price territory as tolls on Maryland's new Inter County Connector.

By 2012 these shorter trips will be quite high per-mile. And if WSA's schedule is followed the toll rates just keep on rising to service the big rail debt.

BACKGROUND: Dulles Toll Road we measure as a 4+4 lane 22.9km (14.2 mile) toll facility (WSA has it a mile shorter) going from a bit inside the Capital Beltway (I-495) to the Dulles Greenway toll Plaza  on the northern fringe of Washington Dulles International Airport. As far west as VA28 it straddles an older untolled 2+2 lane Dulles Airport Access Road.

At its eastern end its traffic derives from the Tysons Corner regional center, the Beltway and Arlington Co/DC via I-66. The largest trip origins westbound afternoon are DC, followed by Tysons, with Arlington third. Westbound afternoons the destinations are widely spread over the western half of Fairfax County with a much smaller number in Loudoun County.

DTR serves established communities like Reston, Herndon and Chantilly on either side, plus Washington Dulles Int Airport. It continues directly to the privately operated Dulles Greenway which serves Loudoun County and Leesburg further northwest.

The Dulles Toll Road was built by Virginia DOT opening in 1984. It has been very successful as a tollroad, exceeding traffic and revenue forecasts and needing widening twice in its first 15 years. In the last decade however traffic has grown quite slowly however. There has been no growth since 2005.
Nov 1 2008 the tollroad was transferred from Virginia DOT to the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) a multi-state/federal (US, VA, MD, DC) agency as part of a deal to use toll revenue bonds in financing of the construction of a metrorail line in the corridor. The rail extension from the Metrorail orange line at West Falls Church will have four stops in Tysons Corner and at Dulles airport but apart form those two excursions will be built in the central median of the access road and will have suburban stations.

In rush hours the inside or 4th lane each direction is HOV2 but vehicles pay the same tolls regardless of occupancy.

There are slip lanes westbound from the tollroad (DTR) to airport access road (DAAR) in the direction of the airport but no slip-lanes DAAR-DTR and a similar arrangement eastbound to prevent non-Airport traffic from evading the toll.

COMMENT: Toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road have historically been very low relative to the value they provide motorists, so toll rate raises make sense now. How much sense the raises make beyond 2012 is another issue.

You have to doubt whether the toll road can successfully assume the huge longterm debts of the lavish rail operation as the WSA scheme suggests. We thought the rail extension to the big Tysons Corner made sense because Tysons is a large concentration of workplaces and other activity suited to rail service. But beyond Tysons in 'sprawl' country the rail line has all the appearance of a looming white elephant. Most air travelers want door to door service that only rubber tired vehicles can provide. They won't wrestle with turnstiles and escalators and trains that go from stop to stop.

Sadly on the tollroad the airports' operator appears set on perpetuating the old-fashioned mainline plus ramp barrier arrangement of tolling built around simple coin denominations and periodic increases of a quarter. That's a legacy of anachronistic coin baskets.

The model for MWAA is just over the Potomac - Maryland's ICC. With a flexible all-electronic distance based toll system freed from the tyranny of quarters the Dulles Toll Road could be managed for greater toll equity without any loss of revenue.

And a cash/transponder toll differential would both reflect the lower operating cost of tolling by transponder, and encourage more transponder use that would enhance time savings.

Such flexible and differentiated pricing would also allow better management of congestion through time-varied toll rates which would provide better value for the toll-$. 

But airport managers have rarely shown any interest in flexible pricing for freeflow at their airports.

Backups and queues seem to be the business model of the backward bureaucratized aviation industry, so we're pessimists about the DTR's future under current management.

TOLLROADSnews 2010-01-01 (REVISIONS 2010-01-02 11:00)

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