After years of division, some of Loudoun’s state lawmakers have rallied behind a bill to curb the Dulles Greenway’s toll increases and the financing loopholes the operator uses to raise cash at the expense of drivers.
Legislation to limit the Greenway’s constant toll increases has failed in the General Assembly year after year, typically with Loudoun’s own state delegation split on proposed bills. But a new bill, House Bill 1832, was announced with backing from a swath of Loudoun’s state delegation. Its patrons in the House of Delegates are Dels. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87), Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10) and David A. Reid (D-32), with support from Sen. John J. Bell (D-13). County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) also support the bill and were on hand for its announcement.
David I. Ramadan, who formerly represented the 87th House District and has long led the fight against Greenway toll increases, said the bill is “not just a bipartisan effort,” but the result of lessons learned over years of that fight.
“This is an effort that started in 2013, and what’s been put together now by Del. [Suhas] Subramanyam (D-87) and Sen. [John J.] Bell (D-13), with the support of everybody else on this on this call, is a culmination of a very well-thought and deliberative process that took eight years in the making,” Ramadan said. “So, what they put together here is a real solution, a fair solution, a solution that takes into account all the all the concerns that we heard in the past from the Greenway and other stakeholders, and that will take care of our constituents.”
“This legislation provides a framework that will allow for fair decision making,” Bell said. “If you look at the stops that we’ve had before—losses at [State Corporation Commission] court cases, et cetera—there have been reasons we haven’t succeeded. This legislation addresses all of those reasons.”
The owner of the private highway, Toll Road Investors Limited Partnership II and its parent Atlas Arteria, are well-connected in Richmond. In 2020, one of its lobbyists was Whitt Clement, a former seven-term state delegate and former secretary of Transportation under then-Gov. Mark Warner. A recently added member of its board of directors, Pierce Homer, was the state’s next secretary of Transportation after Clement, serving from 2005 to 2010 under Warner and then-Governor Tim Kaine. And on July 21 the Greenway announced it had appointed Renée Hamilton, formerly the Virginia Department of Transportation’s deputy district administrator for Northern Virginia, as its new CEO.
“It’s not gonna be an easy thing,” Ramadan said. “The very highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists, who would be doing their jobs in Richmond on the other side, will try to kill this legislation, but we will do everything we can together to get this passed.”
In addition to creating more concrete rules for when the State Corporation Commission may grant toll increases to the Greenway—long a goal in tougher versions of proposed legislation—the bill seeks to box in the Greenway in on a number of financial strategies the company has employed before.
“The fundamental problem and difference with the Greenway [is], when the county builds a road, we take out debt sometimes to pay for it, we pay a contractor, and then we’re done with it. The Greenway has done that many times over, because they have cashed out, paid investors, and now they expect toll rate payers to pay for all those different maneuvers that have been made—financial maneuvers—over all these years,” Letourneau said. “That’s how you have a road that was built all that long time ago, that now has debt that’s several times what it originally cost them to do. And that’s fundamentally unfair.”
The bill would require the Greenway to petition the State Corporation Commission before refinancing its debt, and require among other things that refinancing is “necessary to operate, maintain, enlarge, or expand the roadway” and “that such refinancing will not increase toll rates.”
Additionally, if the Greenway seeks to extend or transfer its authority to operate—which expires in 2056, when the road is scheduled to become publicly owned—it must submit financial disclosures and have at least a BBB- bond rating from a major credit ratings agency, the lowest investment-grade rating.
Currently none of the three major bond ratings agencies rate the Greenway that highly. Moody’s gives the Greenway a Ba1, a rating that has held steady since upgrading from Ba2 in 2016. Fitch gives the Greenway’s bonds a BB-, on a steady slide downward since June 2019 when it was downgraded from BB+ to BB, then BB- in April 2020. And Standard and Poor’s, the ratings agency that has been kindest to the Greenway, in December lowered its rating from BBB- to BB+ on worse-than-expected traffic recovery.
“In the end, I think, the road was not intended to be a financial instrument, and that’s basically what that gets at,” Subramanyam said. “It prevents the road from continuing to be a financial instrument for these investors.”
The new legislation could also further impact those credit ratings, which in the past have been made in an environment where the Greenway was guaranteed annual toll increases. Fitch specifically cited “the limited visibility into TRIP II’s short-term, rate-making predictability following expiration of the previously approved schedule” in its latest bond rating announcement.
“The Greenway is an equity issue, amongst other things,” Randall said. “People who can afford to take the Greenway will, or whose companies will pay for them to take the Greenway, they will take it. But the people who can’t afford it—those are the people who are sitting in traffic. And they want to get home to their children also, they want to see their kids’ soccer game, or their daughter be a daisy on stage, and that they can’t, because the Greenway is cost-prohibitive.”
There are no immediate plans to push tolls back down, or to purchase the road and make it public.
“I think the Greenway has made a certain set of business decisions in this particular operating environment that they’ve had for the last, you know, 20, 30 years, in which they’ve essentially been allowed to get regular rate increases, and then ultimately have that approved by the General Assembly for a period of time,” Letourneau said. “They may choose something different in the future if they have a different environment—we don’t know.”
And Bell asked members of the public to testify on behalf of the bill.
“We love to have that, because I think the most powerful voices in Richmond are the citizens when they testify,” Bell said.
Even as lawmakers prepare to the 2021 General Assembly session, the Dulles Greenway is before the State Corporation Commission asking for five more years of annual toll increases. Those range from a 5% increase on off-peak traffic for 2022 to a 6.8% 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 taking the Greenway to and from work every day under those toll rates could spend more than $4,000 a year just in tolls. Today those tolls are $4.75 and $5.80.