Loudoun’s state representatives—many of them new faces—met county supervisors Monday night for dinner Monday night and agreed to carry some of Loudoun’s local legislative priorities ahead in the state General Assembly.
Chief among those is a battle that’s been looming over Loudoun commuters and their wallets for years: tolls on the Dulles Greenway, Virginia’s only private highway.
Earlier this year, local elected officials saw an opportunity coming to break the Greenway’s grip on tolls with the pending expiration of a state law adopted in 2008 giving the Greenway’s ownership group, Toll Road Investors Partnership II—today owned by Australian company Atlas Arteria—guaranteed annual rate hikes of at least 2.8 percent each year between 2013 and 2020. That bill was introduced by then-Sen. Mark Herring (D) and then-Del. Joe May (R), intended as a way to curtail the even higher toll hikes that commuters had been seeing before. Under the state law governing the private highway, before that bill, the State Corporation Commission had the authority to oversee the Greenway’s toll increases, and unless something changes, will once again in 2021.
But local and state officials in 2019 were divided among themselves on how to tackle the problem, and no bills passed the General Assembly except a study on combining the Dulles Greenway and the Dulles Toll Road, proposed by then-Del. John J. Bell (D-87).
“The fact that it’s a privately owned company and there is a lot of debt—that’s a bad starting point,” said Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10). She worried previous proposals that would implement distance-based tolling on the Greenway would mean tolls go up even more for people getting on at the toll road’s western end in Leesburg.
“That road was built for those people, that’s the way I perceive it, and we have to make sure that the people who need it the most, the ones who are farthest away from their jobs, are not the ones who are punished the most,” Gooditis said. “But, you know, until there’s a deal with the ownership, it’s hard to see how we’re going to have really affordable tolls on that road.”
Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31), who serves on the senate’s transportation committee, said elected officials need to agree on their goals.
“If we can come forth with a framework, perhaps we can start the conversations and see what evolves,” Favola said. “It’s going to be a challenge, though, and I think the private ownership, the obligations they might have, financial obligations, our needs—we’re growing, Loudoun’s growing, so it’s going to be a struggle.”
“I want to make sure that whatever we work to do is equitable for everybody, but I absolutely agree that we’ve got to do something about this,” said Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33), who also serves on the transportation committee. “This is not tenable that people have to spend 400 dollars a month on just their commuting costs driving to work.”
While there’s no consensus on what to do about the tolls, several ideas have been floated. Boysko suggested high-occupancy vehicle lanes, or simply pushing tolls down to get more traffic on the Greenway.
“I don’t know if you go on the toll road during rush hour, but it’s not packed,” Boysko said. “I don’t know why we couldn’t have just across- the-board lowering of the tolls, increase the volume on it and then that seems reasonable to me.”
Favola and Gooditis also favored incentives for more mass transit, such as allowing buses to travel the road for free.
And Boysko acknowledged there is nobody in the General Assembly who supports things as they are now.
“I don’t know what the constituency is for the Greenway,” Boysko said. “I don’t know who thinks that this is the best answer. I’ve not talked to anybody who does.”
The Greenway’s tolls have had a serious impact on Loudoun’s politics and budget. Outgoing county Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) won office in 2015 on a signature promise to build alternatives to the Greenway for Loudoun commuters, and during the last board’s term, many Greenway alternatives have been accelerated or added to the county’s capital budget. Most recently, in September, supervisors voted to spend $17.7 million to buy land to extend Shellhorn Road, one such alternative.
Supervisors at the dinner meeting Monday, including Meyer, pushed state officials to take action on the Greenway—although were divided on which action, specifically, to take.
It was not the first time they have been divided on that topic.
In 2019, some elected officials got behind a bill from central southern Virginia Sen. William M. Stanley Jr.’s (R-20) that would give given the State Corporation Commission increased oversight over the Greenway’s finances and tolls.
That bill would have required distance-based tolling, as well as instructed the SCC to launch an investigation into the Greenway’s tolls to see if they meet requirements such as not discouraging use of the road. When the 2008 legislation expires, for the first time in years, those requirements will apply to the Greenway.
Stanley’s bill would also have required the Greenway to provide full public disclosure of its finances, and would prevent the Greenway from listing expenses like lobbyists or entertainment among its expenses when making arguments about the company’s profitability to the SCC. The Greenway’s finances are not publicly disclosed, and the road’s owners requested that materials in a 2016 Virginia Supreme Court lawsuit be sealed and kept from the public. People involved in the lawsuit say those documents reveal more about the Greenway’s finances.
Meanwhile, the Greenway’s representatives threatened that if the Greenway is subjected to regulation and transparency measures such as the Stanley bill, tolls will be raised even higher.
Even some local representatives opposed the Stanley bill, worried, they said, about the possibility of tolls going up even higher for some commuters under distance-based tolling. Sens. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) and Barbara A. Favola (D-31) voted against the bill in committee.
Meanwhile, another bill, introduced by Bell and supported by Del. David A. Reid (D-32), County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), and the Dulles Greenway would have continued the guarantee of annual toll increases in exchange for institutingdistance-based tolling of $0.95 per mile up to five miles in off-peak hours. That bill faced bipartisan opposition from the rest of the county Board of Supervisors, many of whom believed Loudoun commuters would fare better with no deal at all, and amid that criticism the Greenway’s owners withdrew support and Bell substituted the study on combining the Greenway and Dulles Toll Road.
The 2019 General Assembly session ended with no new legislation on the Greenway—only another study. In February, days after the Stanley bill died in committee, TRIP II gave notice it would raise tolls 2.19 percent, bringing the base maximum toll to $4.75, a 10-cent increase. During rush hours, tolls went up by 15 cents, to $5.80. That was a lower percentage increase than years past—rates increased 3.17 percent in 2018 and 3.04 percent in 2017.
Still, elements of Stanley’s bill are still in favor, and Bell said the study launched under his bill is expected out any day.
Loudoun’s Richmond Wishlist
State representatives agreed to carry other local initiatives in Richmond.
One would allow VDOT traffic incident management vehicles to use lights and sirens to get through traffic backups caused by the very incidents to which they are responding. County legislative liaison Gwen Kennedy said in Maryland, where equivalent vehicles already do that, response times are halved.
Another would double the small purchase limit for goods and services, to $200,000. Those purchases have a much simpler acquisition process.
Another would allow the county to renew contracts for architectural and engineering work for longer terms, and more flexibility in awarding those contracts.
Two others would create new exceptions to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to protect the identities of public library users and the confidentiality of affordable housing loan applications.
And based on Loudoun’s own experience with writing a comprehensive plan, county officials are asking for state authorization to take up to 180 days to pass a comprehensive plan after the Planning Commission proposes it, rather than the current 90 days.
“We had a process that went on for three years, and then we had 90 days to sort it out,” said Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin).
Although Loudoun’s state delegation now has many relatively junior members—with several seats flipped in recent elections to new hands—one the Loudoun delegation’s most senior members, Favola, said they will be able to carry local priorities ahead.
“I think fortunately we have officials who have been really embraced by local government, they have been immersed in local government, so that’s a good thing,” Favola said. “We have, I think, a deeper understanding of the intersection of transportation and land use with our current delegation.”
But she also said the attitude in Richmond toward local government has changed with recent elections shifting the makeup of the legislature.
“Most importantly, the people in the General Assembly now who are in the majority in both the house and the senate are far more interested in the state being a true partner with local government,” Favola said. “So there’s a lot more respect for what local government does and the authority local government needs to get the job done, and that’s the biggest change.”