The Dulles Greenway’s attorneys have argued the State Corporation Commission should not pause its deliberations on an application to raise rates for the next five years amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Loudoun County government had asked the SCC to pause proceedings while the county’s senior staff respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is “simply inappropriate” to halt proceedings “absent the potential for actual harm to be imposed upon interested parties,” the Greenway wrote of itsproposal to increase tolls on the state’s only private highway by 30 to 36 percent in the next five years.
Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet has told county supervisors his staff is strained to keep up with the COVID-19 response, with many on administrative leave or working from home to practice social distancing and slow spread of the virus. Meanwhile, in many ways county government has had to change the way it does business, from shutting down parks and libraries, to figuring out new ways for departments to serve customers, to changing the way the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meet.
The current deadline for the county to file its arguments in the Greenway case is April 24, more than a month before Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order ends June 10. The county has requested an extension to Oct. 2, arguing the Board of Supervisors “currently anticipates that it and County employees, including the County Attorney and County Administrator, will be fully engaged in responding to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic through at least the end of the summer.”
“There is no need to suspend this proceeding simply because resources may need to be allocated differently than initially envisioned or practiced in the past,” the Greenway’s lawyers wrote, arguing the county also has outside counsel and could hire traffic experts to argue on its behalf.
County Attorney Leo Rogers said, “we were a little surprised” by the Greenway’s response. And County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said the company that owns the Greenway, TRIP II, a subsidiary of Australian company Atlas Arteria, “is refusing to work with us.”
“I think part of what they have responded with is they don’t believe there is any disruption going on, they don’t understand why the county would be otherwise busy right now,” Hemstreet said during the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. He noted that part of the evidence the county would submit would be traffic counts—which, he said, may not be typical right now.
“The basic premise that life is normal, as being asserted by the Greenway’s owners right now, is a little bit different with perspective to what’s going on in the world,” Hemstreet said.
The Greenway is asking the state to be granted annual toll increase for the next five years, 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.
With legislation having guaranteed annual toll hikes on the Greenway having this year expired, the toll road is now governed by older laws that hold, among other things, that the Greenway’s toll hikes cannot discourage use. This year those laws, which in the past did not discourage even higher toll hikes, will be put to the test—traffic on the Greenway has not increased as much as other major roadways in Loudoun.
The company’s tolls are also supposed to give them no more than a “reasonable rate of return,” but the company’s finances are not fully disclosed. This year the General Assembly once again voted down legislation that would have provided a standard to measure the traffic impacts of tolls, and provided more transparency and guidelines to the company’s finances.
The Dulles Greenway has not returned a request for comment.
This article was updated April 11 at 6:11 p.m. to correct an error.