A Subway Breakdown Causes Tolls to Skyrocket on 66 Express Lanes

An illustration of the intricate relationship between public transit and highways occurred on April 5 when two lines of the D.C. Metro broke down during the peak morning commute, sending many would-be riders to drive I-66 to D.C. instead.
April 11, 2018, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Metro had a nearly two-hour shutdown [from about 6:15 to 8 a.m.] on part of its Orange and Silver lines after smoke was reported at the Virginia Square station and in tunnels between Clarendon and Ballston" in Arlington, Va., reports Dana Hedgpeth for The Washington Post.

The influx of new drivers on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway who would otherwise have ridden the subway caused congestion, slowing speeds on the general purpose lanes. For solo drivers wanting a faster commute by opting to use the tolled 66 Express Lanes, which applies congestion pricing, i.e., the tolls increase with the level of congestion to keep minimum speeds above 45 mph, it wouldn't come cheap. Unlike many of the nation's other express lanes, the tolls have no upper limit, i.e., they are uncapped.

The $47 [eastbound morning] toll for the 10-mile stretch inside the Beltway was the third highest since the lanes made their debut in December. The high was $47.50 on Feb. 28 [see below], according to figures from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The toll system is based on a “dynamic pricing” system that changes every six minutes, depending on demand, traffic and speed.

Not all vehicles using the express lanes pay tolls though. Drivers with at least one passenger traveled toll-free as the lanes are also high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. Motorcyclists also travel toll-free. However, Teslas and other clean cars get no break without passengers.

Metro breakdowns not uncommon

Last Thursday's Metro breakdowns causing the 66 Express Lanes tolls to skyrocket was no anomaly.

On Feb. 28, there were lengthy delays for Metro riders on the Orange and Silver lines after a train had a brake problem at the Ballston station. Metro shut down rail service on part of the lines for about an hour. On that day, the eastbound I-66 toll peaked at $47.50, setting the record.

The subway-road toll relationship illustrates why it is good public policy to allow toll revenues to be used to improve transit service. Tolling need not be restricted to highways but also considered for urban cordons, as proposed in New York, Seattle, and potentially four California cities, to improve urban transit as well as other travel alternatives.

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Published on Thursday, April 5, 2018 in The Washington Post
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