A four-year-long challenge to the toll rates charged on the Dulles Greenway reached an apparent conclusion today with no relief in sight for Loudoun commuters.
The Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion upholding rate hikes granted by the State Corporation Commission since 2012. The toll increases were challenged by David L. Ramadan, then a state delegate representing the 87th House District, and the Loudoun Board of Supervisors.
Ramadan charged that the rate increases did not comply with state law and pressed the SCC to enact lower rates. Critics said the higher tolls discourage area residents from using the privately owned 14-mile highway between Rt. 28 and Leesburg, and that revenue generated by the tolls is in excess of that needed to provide a reasonable rate of return for owner TRIP II.
With increases approved again earlier this year, TRIP II collects $4.40 per car at its main toll plaza, $5.35 per car during rush hours. Motorist passing through the plaza also pay $1 more to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for travel on the Dulles Toll Road.
The Supreme Court, in a Sept. 8 opinion written by Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan, found the SCC acted in accord with state law and also concluded that efforts to legislate lower tolls could constitute a constitutional “taking” in the Fifth Amendment.
County supervisors expressed dismay about the ruling.
“By any standard, the tolls charged on the Greenway are excessive and we continue to believe that reducing the cost of using the Greenway would help to alleviate traffic congestion in the region without digging into the profits of TRIP II,” County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall said in a statement.
“While we knew that our appeal would be a long shot, if nothing else it demonstrates that the county has exhausted all judicial means to rectify this problem—meaning that it is time for our lawmakers to act,” Supervisor Matt F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) stated. “I still believe that the SCC used flawed analysis to justify their continued Greenway toll increases, and that it is abundantly clear to all of us that the excessive Greenway tolls are materially discouraging the use of the Greenway, in violation of the law.”
In the opinion, the justices found that the SCC and its staff correctly acted under two sections of the state code that apply to the Greenway. Under the regulations in place when the Greenway opened in 1995, the commission is required to approve rates “if they appear reasonable to the user in relation to the benefit obtained, not likely to materially discourage use of the roadway and provide the operator no more than a reasonable rate of return as determined by the Commission.”
At that time, the SCC was authorized to substitute lower rates based on specific factors. The General Assembly in 2008 enacted a law requiring the commission to approve toll rate increases of at least 2.8 percent each year between 2013 and 2020.
While approving annual rate hikes, the SCC, at Ramadan’s request, also studied whether lower tolls would be justified under the original regulations. The commission and its staff concluded that the tolls complied with those tests, as well. Among the factors cited by the SCC were that TRIP II experts found that the tolls did not materially discourage motorists from using the highway and that the corporation had never recorded a profitable year of operation.
While the Greenway operates at a loss, its largest investor operates profitable toll-road operations around the globe.
In addition to challenging the toll rates, local leaders have lobbied for TRIP II to convert to distance-priced tolling that would reduce travel cost for eastern Loudoun commuters and some have advocated a plan for the state to purchase the highway from the private owners.
TRIP II has opposed distance tolling, citing the costs associated with building the infrastructure needed to implement it. The Commonwealth Transportation Board recently reviewed options to purchase the Greenway, with its staff concluding that alternative also was cost-prohibitive.
Following the Supreme Court ruling, if those positions remain unchanged, the ability to halt annual toll rate hikes—or to lower current tolls—rest entirely with the General Assembly.