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Two Cheers for Virginia's I-66 Express Lanes

This week, the nine-mile segment of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway became tolled during the morning and evening rush hours. The tolls apply for single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on weekdays from 5:30am to 9:30am eastbound in the morning and 3pm to 7pm westbound in the evening. Toll rates are set dynamically every six minutes in order to achieve a steady flow of traffic at the posted speed limits, which range from 45 to 55 miles per hour. There is no cap on toll rates, allowing tolls to rise as high as solo drivers are willing to pay. I-66 is toll free at all other times.

Many Northern Virginia residents are outraged at the early high toll rates, with some reportedly seeing rates exceeding $30 for the entire nine-mile stretch between I-495 and Route 29 of I-66 at the peak of the peak. But it is unclear why many people are so outraged at these changes.

Until this week, the inside-the-Beltway I-66 lanes were exclusively available for high-occupancy vehicles with at least two people during rush hour. Hybrid SOVs had an exemption, but every other SOV was prohibited from driving into and out of Washington, D.C. on I-66 during peak hours. The rush hour periods were also expanded from 6:30am to 9am in the mornings and 4pm to 6:30pm in the evenings, and the limited SOV exemption for travelers bound for Dulles International Airport was also eliminated.

What this means is that the majority of people who took toll-free I-66 last week are not paying a penny more to use the road. The only drivers who are paying more are solo hybrid drivers, solo drivers caught in the new extended rush hours, and those driving to Dulles airport. More importantly is who can now use this segment of I-66 during rush hour that couldn’t before: anyone driving alone and willing to pay the variable toll.

To be sure, the high toll rates suggest that improvements are needed. The carpooling exemption should immediately be reduced by requiring three occupants rather than two, or ideally eliminating the carpooling exemption all together. Highway segments on competing routes should also be tolled to minimize the negative traffic impacts of toll displacement.

But road pricing is the proper approach to rationing scarce road space, just like any other good or service. When roads are not tolled, they are not “free.” Someone pays for them, usually residents through gas taxes and property taxes. It is fairer to charge users directly for the benefits they accrue from their use. When people don’t face prices for the goods and services they consume, rationing is done by queuing—from Soviet bread lines to traffic congestion. Consumers are denied choice and reliable access to goods and services. In the case of roads, traffic congestion resulting from a lack of pricing means travel times are less predictable and people are late for work or other appointments.

So, rather than being something to scoff at, Virginia’s limited foray into uncapped variable tolling represents a fairer and more efficient way to manage traffic congestion and pay for surface transportation while increasing consumer choice. What is neither fair nor efficient is failing to charge road users for their road use, road socialism that unfortunately infects the minds of entitled drivers on the left and the right.