This story was updated at Jan. 28 at 4:55 p.m. to reflect the bill passing the House of Delegates.
A bill to curb toll increases on the Dulles Greenway has unanimously passed the House of Delegates and cleared the Virginia Senate’s transportation committee, putting it only a few steps away from becoming law.
House Bill 1832, which cleared a House committee on Tuesday then passed in the full House of Delegates on Friday 99-0-0, with one delegate listed not voting, is the companion bill to Senate Bill 1259.
The House Bill was introduced by Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87) with backing from Dels. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10), David A. Reid (D-32), Dan I. Helmer (D-40), Karrie K. Delaney (D-67), Kaye Kory (D-38), and Kathleen Murphy (D-34) and Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31).
The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. John J. Bell (D-13) with Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-31) as chief co-patron, and Dels. David A. Reid (D-32) and Suhas Subramanyam (D-87) the House patrons. Bell expressed confidence about the bill’s prospects.
“We’ve got bipartisan support,” Bell said. “The biggest thing with the Greenway, frankly, is educating people who don’t live in our area what it is and what are the unique issues that we’re trying to resolve, because it’s really a one-of-a-kind road.”
Bell and Subramanyam, the House bill’s chief patron, have coordinated to keep both bills identical so far, avoiding any need for a conference committee to hammer out the differences between chambers and streamlining the bill’s passage.
Current law forbids the State Corporation Commission, which oversees the Greenway’s tolls, from granting toll hikes that would discourage drivers from using the private highway—but with no definition in the law for discouraging use, tolls have continued to go up even as drivers head to other, public roads in droves. The bill creates a definition for “materially discourage use.”
The bill also seeks to close a financing loophole by requiring the Greenway’ owners to petition the SCC 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, with Standard and Poor’s dropping its bond rating in December from BBB- to BB+ on worse-than-expected traffic recovery.
And the bill would also restrict the Greenway from applying for toll increases one year at a time. The Dulles Greenway is currently 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.
Arguments were completed in that case in November 2020; Loudoun and the Greenway are still waiting on a decision from the SCC.
Although the SCC, which operates like a court, has not yet issued a decision, much of the language of this year’s Greenway bills in the General Assembly was based on findings in an SCC hearing examiner’s report in the case. But the SCC’s decision will still be based on the current law, not the new bills, which would go into effect July 1. Although they do not coordinate with legislators, Bell said the SCC is aware of the bills working their way through the state capitol, and pointed out the hearing examiner’s report recommended against some toll increases.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they just do a one-year decision, which would then mean next year would be under these rules,” Bell said. “But they have to follow the current law. This won’t go into effect until July 1 if it passes, but they’re clearly aware of the discussion that’s happening right now.”
The Senate transportation committee voted 12-3 on Thursday, Jan. 28 to recommend passing the bill. Ayes included both Loudoun senators on the committee, Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) and Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31). Votes against came from Lynchburg, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. The bill will likely see a vote on the Senate floor sometime next week.