The Board of Supervisors is unlikely to support a proposed deal to bring limited distance-based tolling to the Dulles Greenway as long as the state guarantees the owners annual toll rate increases through 2056.
With many supervisors opposed, the board likely does not have enough votes to endorse the deal, which was worked out between the Greenway’s owners, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and state Delegates David A. Reid (D-32) and John J. Bell (D-87).
Many of the board’s Republicans have already publicly stated that they oppose the deal, which extends the current guarantee of annual Greenway toll increases. Under the state’s current deal with the Greenway, which expires at the end of the year, the State Corporation Commission must approve toll rate increases equal to the increase in the Consumer Price Index plus one percent, the increase in real Gross Domestic Product, or 2.8 percent annually—whichever is highest.
That agreement was based on bill was introduced by then-state Sen. Mark Herring (D-33) and then-Delegate Joe T. May (R-33) and unanimously approved by the General Assembly in 2008. The bill was seen at the time as a way to cap skyrocketing Greenway tolls. Herring is now attorney general and has announced a run for the governor’s mansion; May is running in a special election for the state senate.
The proposed deal, as shared with the Board of Supervisors by the Greenway’s owners, extends the rate-hike guarantee indefinitely. By the agreement between the state and the Greenway’s owners, the state will take ownership of the 14.5-mile highway in 2056. Assuming annual increases of 2.8 percent from the current $5.65 toll, the deal raise the one-way peak tolls between Leesburg and Rt. 28 to at least $15.70 by in 2056.
The deal also implements a toll of a dollar per mile up to five miles during off-peak hours. If the Greenway’s off-peak revenues change in either direction by more than five percent, the State Corporation Commission would adjust tolls again to compensate.
The Greenway’s guaranteed annual toll increases have been a central complaint of the current deal with the state, which is set to expire at the end of the year.
“Let’s be really clear: this deal is great for the Greenway and terrible for Ashburn,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) in a press release. “Instead of delivering real distance-based tolling, this deal is simply profit-guaranteed tolling for the Greenway.”
Similarly, Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) wrote the deal is “good only for the Greenway, not the County or toll payers.” And Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said, “I’m sure there’s a deal to be had to bring about distance-based tolling in a way that won’t negatively affect anyone, but this isn’t it.”
“All this deal would do is guarantee that everyone, to include the few short distance non-peak hour users that would initially benefit slightly, will pay more for use of the Greenway until the year 2056,” Buffington said.
Letourneau and Buffington said they would rather let the deal expire and force the Greenway to face State Corporation Commission review again. If the current deal is allowed to expire, the Greenway rate hike requests would face normal regulatory hurdles, including demonstrating that tolls “will not materially discourage use of the roadway by the public.”
“The Greenway’s argument was, hey, in the past, we’ve gotten even bigger toll increases,” Letourneau said. “That’s true, but at the time there was no organized opposition to it.” Now, he said, the county has a strong case to make against high toll increases, including those made in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Greenway by then-Delegate David I. Ramadan (R-87) and joined by the county government.
The new deal, he said, gives up the county’s only leverage for “not much.”
“It’s very little benefit to very few people,” Letourneau said.
The county’s current official stance opposes extending automatic toll increases, and argues “current toll prices and practices affiliated with the Dulles Greenway are discouraging use of the toll road, causing congestion on alternate routes within the local road network.” To accept the proposed deal, supervisors would need to vote to change that policy position.
But Bell said the new deal is still a work in progress, and without it, tolls could grow even more quickly. No bill has yet been filed in the General Assembly.
“We’re really going to be entering a period of uncertainty if we have no deal, because it’s going to be uncapped, and with an uncapped deal they’re going to ask for I think much higher raises than they’ve been given the past,” Bell said. He said he expects the SCC would grant those increases.
“I’m not going to say this deal’s perfect,” Bell said. “I wish it was 24/7 distance-based pricing, it’s not. But having said that, it’s implemented for actually 91 percent of the operating hours on the road in a year. That’s a huge step forward for what we have today, and it puts a cap on the rate increases.”
Supervisors are expected to take up the idea of a new Greenway deal at their meeting tonight. The General Assembly’s 2019 session begins at noon Jan. 9.