The General Assembly has once again struck down a bill to strengthen oversight of tolls on the Dulles Greenway, as the state’s only privately-owned toll road has applied for five years of toll increases at the highest rates
This will be the first year since 2013 that the Greenway will not be granted an automatic toll increase, but instead will have to apply for—and justify—a toll increase to the State Corporation Commission for sought for 2021.
Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87) this year introduced a bill, co-patroned by Del. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10), to give the SCC more objective criteria to analyze the Greenway’s applications for toll increases, and to give the Virginia Department of Transportation oversight of the Greenway’s traffic modeling. That bill died in committee Thursday evening.
Loudoun County Attorney Leo Rogers and Chamber of Commerce Vice President Grafton DeButts appeared before the House Committee on Labor and Commerce to speak in favor of the bill Thursday evening. Rogers pointed out that the Greenway has already filed an application for five years of toll increases, ranging from a 5 percent increase on off-peak traffic for 2022 to a 6.8 percent increase on peak hour traffic in 2025. If approved, tolls would stand at $6.15 per one-way trip in off-peak hours, and $7.90 in peak hours by 2025.
A commuter traveling twice a day on the Greenway during rush hour, five days a week, 52 weeks a year would pay $4,108 in tolls annually.
Today those tolls are $4.75 and $5.80.
Rogers said the Greenway is proposing to increase tolls by about a third.
“If the users of the Greenway go down, the Greenway still makes money,” Rogers said. “What we ought to be looking at here is not maximizing their return, but maximizing the usage. To give you some perspective on this, the incentive for the Greenway is to reduce the number of cars on the road, because they have a contract with VDOT that, should the traffic trip certain limits, then they’re required to make improvements.”
By law, the Greenway’s toll hikes cannot discourage use. Subramanyam’s bill would have provided a way to measure that based on traffic.
“The tolls are so high on the Dulles Greenway that motorists are incentivized not to use the toll road, but to avoid it,” DeButts said. “Traffic has gone up across all major thoroughfares in Loudoun County with the exception of the Dulles Greenway, where they have remained flat.”
The bill would also have provided some guidelines for the Greenway’s revenue. Under state law the company’s tolls are also supposed to give them no more than a “reasonable rate of return,” but the company’s secretive finances have made that difficult to measure.
“The Greenway cost a little over $400 million to build in the 1990s,” Rogers said. “After 25 years of collecting tolls, the debt has tripled.”
Today, the Greenway claims around a billion dollars in debt—and, bringing in an estimated $100 million each year in tolls. The owners say the road has never made a profit. And Rogers said when the Greenway’s license to operate a private toll road expires in 2056, that debt becomes “essentially junk bonds.”
“Someone is making money,” Rogers said. “Roughly the Greenway is bringing in $100 million a year in tolls, for a road that cost $425 million in the 1990s. It’s paid 25 years’ worth of tolls, and those tolls will continue to increase until 2056 at which point that debt will be extinguished.”
Currently, the Greenway measures its debt—and other expenses like lobbyists—against its profitability in applying for rate increases.
And it would give VDOT the ability to review the traffic projections the Greenway provides when it applies for toll increases.
“If VDOT can review the traffic modeling that’s happening by the Greenway that’s proposing the toll rate increase, the SCC won’t have to hear from various experts on traffic modeling and be the decider,” Rogers said. “VDOT is the expert in this area. We should use that expertise.”
“In 1995 when the Greenway opened, I, who commuted from Loudoun County to Pennsylvania Avenue, could not use the road because the tolls were higher than my car payment,” Gooditis said. “All these years later, I, as well as thousands of Loudoun County residents, avoid that toll road.”
The Greenway’s lobbyist in the committee, Whitt Clement of lobbying firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, argued Subramanyam’s bill would change a contract between the state and the company.
“The bill attempts to change and interfere with this contract between two parties,” Clement said. “It would impose new tests on what the SCC is to apply whenever a toll increase is sought.”
The bill failed in the committee on an 8-8 vote, with five committee members absent and one abstaining. Gooditis, the only local representative on the committee, voted in favor.
Subramanyam said “this is definitely not the end.”
“Maybe it’s not this session, this session is coming to a close fast, but in the future, [we will be] seeing if we can find a solution that everyone can agree on in the General Assembly, or at least among all the stakeholders,” Subramanyam said.
Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said there may also be a chance of bringing the bill back in this term. And he said the county is ready to fight the Greenway’s application for more toll increases, particularly around the tolls causing drivers to avoid the Greenway.
“I think there’s analysis that we have worked on related to traffic patterns and traffic studies,” Letourneau said.
And he said he is “not shocked that the Greenway and their lobbyists were once again successful.”
The Greenway’s representative in the capitol, Hunton Andrews Kurth, is one of Richmond’s most powerful lobbying agencies—the lobbyist arguing against Subramanyam’s bill, Clement, was a seven-term state delegate and Secretary of Transportation under then-Gov. Mark Warner.