Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Fed-up commuters could take another route, but there aren’t any."


The roads not taken don’t exist

Feb 8, 2007

The Washington DC Examiner
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON - There are two toll roads in Northern Virginia. The Dulles Toll Road is publicly owned and the Dulles Greenway is privately owned, but the differences end there. Tolls on both will soon increase significantly, and there’s not much trapped commuters can do about it.

The 57,000 drivers who use the 14.5-mile Greenway each day already pay $2.70 one way, no matter how far they drive. If Toll Road Investors Partnership II gets approval from the State Corporation Commission, tolls will go up to $4.80 by 2012, making the Greenway one of the most expensive toll roads in the nation. TRIP II was a consortium partially owned by Middleburg matron Magalen Ohrstrom Bryant. Her late brother, George Ohrstrom Jr., founded the Piedmont Environmental Council, which doesn’t like roads messing up its “viewshed.”

Two weeks after the Loudoun Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the Greenway toll hike, former Sterling Supervisor Roger Zurn reminded state commissioners that when the Greenway was approved in 1992, TRIP II promised it would be an affordable alternative to already clogged Route 7 — and the $1.75 toll would rise only to cover maintenance costs. The deal guaranteed Greenway investors a “reasonable” rate of return, but it’s certainly not reasonable to expect commuters to make up for the road’s first 10 years of operating losses in just five years.

Congressman Frank Wolf, R-Va., called the proposed Greenway toll hike “nothing more than highway robbery.” Not exactly. The Greenway is a private road. In theory, anyway, drivers who don’t want to pay 34 cents a mile (compared to 6 cents on the New Jersey Turnpike), can go another way. The reality is more complicated. The public road system was already inadequate when the Greenway was approved — and that was before 100,000 more people moved into Loudoun County. But the commonwealth has failed to add additional road capacity even in one of the nation’s fastest growing exurbs.

For real highway robbery, look to the 16-mile Dulles Toll Road. Taxpayers were told back in 1984 that the tolls would be eliminated once the bonds sold to finance the public project were paid off. Instead, the toll road was turned into a giant ATM, used to fund everything but transportation.

VDOT recently agreed to turn over the Dulles Toll Road to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority this spring. MWAA wants to use the toll road’s $28 million annual revenue to pay for a Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, and has already announced plans to raise tolls to pay for it. How high they will go is anybody’s guess. MWAA could make the proposed Greenway toll hike look like a bargain, and if the public doesn’t like it, too bad. MWAA is an unelected body and only five of its 13 members are from Virginia. Not only is MWAA not accountable to the public, it doesn’t even think it has to respond to Freedom of Information requests, as Examiner reporter William Flook recently discovered.

Fed-up commuters could take another route, but there aren’t any.

© 2007 The Washington DC Examiner:

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