A bill to fight toll increases on the Dulles Greenway could be one vote away from the governor’s desk, after the Virginia Senate’s Transportation Committee voted Thursday in favor of Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87)’s House Bill 1832.
At the same meeting, the committee voted to drop a Greenway-backed bill introduced by Del. David A. Reid (D-32).
Subramanyam’s bill and its Senate twin, Sen. John J. Bell (D-13)’s Senate Bill 1259, have many elements of bills introduced and killed every year since Subramanyam’s predecessor David I. Ramadan held office. This year, it enjoys the broadest support among Loudoun’s state delegation of any bill of its type in that time, and is now headed to the Senate floor, possibly for a final vote. The Senate bill has already passed both chambers. One of its co-patrons, Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33), serves on the Senate transportation committee.
However, the bill still faces some opposition from the Greenway’s powerful lobbying firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, and lawmakers sympathetic to the Australia-based multinational firm that owns the Greenway, Atlas Arteria.
The bill seeks to create measurable standards for evaluating whether proposed toll increases would discourage use of the highway—something many Loudouners say is already happening, as they avoid Greenway tolls when they can. Under the law governing the Greenway, toll increases should not discourage use.
It also seeks to close the financing loopholes through which the owners of the toll road, which cost several hundred million dollars to build and was finished in 1995, have amassed around a billion dollars in outstanding debt. It would require that debt refinancings be done only if necessary to operate, maintain, or expand the road and will not increase toll rates. The Greenway’s ballooning debt has been part of the costs it has presented to the SCC to justify annual toll increases.
“None of that money has gone into maintenance or upgrades of the Dulles Greenway has it?” said Franklin County Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-20) during the Transportation Committee meeting. “It’s just debt service they’ve piled onto it as a collateral asset.”
If the Greenway seeks to stay privately owned beyond 2056, it must make 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.
And the bill would also limit the Greenway to apply for toll increases one year at a time, continuing the practice under a law that expired last year also virtually guaranteed toll increases. When that law expired, the Dulles Greenway is filed with 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.
Hunton Andrews Kurth lobbyist Myles Louria argued in during the committee meeting the bill would increase costs for everyone.
“What do yearly trips to the SCC for toll adjustments actually get you? Well, if you’re the SCC, it gets you a huge headache and a huge increase in the time and resources necessary to decide rate cases. If you’re the Greenway, it increases the costs associated with the SCC proceedings, which will unfortunately flow back to the toll road users in the form of increased tolls. And if you’re Loudoun County, it increases your costs associated with the SCC again,” Louria said.
The Greenway until last year went to the SCC for toll increases every year. The five years of increases the Greenway is seeking now are several times higher each year than the toll increases it sought when it was going to the SCC annually.
“It’s an equity issue. A lot of working families in my community and others in Loudoun County, they can’t afford to take the road, and it’s in many ways the only way to get to work every day,” Subramanyam told the committee. “They’re spending thousands of dollars. I know one person who said they spent $1,000 a month on the road.
The Greenway lobbyists’ influence—and other lawmakers’ level of awareness about Northern Virginia’s road network—was on display in the committee. Virginia Beach Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-8), who formerly lived in the region, suggested Rt. 28—which Subramanyam pointed out is mostly perpendicular to the Greenway—is a toll-free alternative route. He also suggested Loudoun County should buy the Greenway—”heck, I’m sure if you gave them a pretty decent return on investment, they’d be happy to sell it to you”—something the state has studied before, and found too expensive because of the massive debt costs the Greenway has built.
While Loudoun County has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into building or expanding other state roads to provide Greenway alternatives, Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko pointed out there are still difficulties avoiding the Greenway.
“I do live about a mile off of the toll road, and it can take me 20 minutes to get from the Town of Herndon to Leesburg if I take the Greenway. It will take me, if we have rush hour traffic, 45 minutes to an hour and a half, and I do have to go through neighborhoods to get into onto 28 and Rt. 7,” Boysko said.
The committee voted 10-5 to send the bill back to the floor for a full Senate vote.
“This is a critical win for long-suffering Loudoun commuters, and one which will finally ensure real transparency and oversight when it comes to toll increases,” Subramanyam stated after the vote. “For the first time ever, we are sending a clear message that guaranteed multiyear toll increases without any accountability or real oversight will no longer be tolerated.”
A separate bill that was supported by the Greenway was left in committee later in that same meeting. House Bill 2104 was presented as a Northam administration bill, and would have sidelined the State Corporation Commission and the county government by giving the administration carte blanche to negotiate and execute a new deal with the Greenway directly. It would also have exempted the Greenway, the county’s second-largest real estate taxpayer, from property paying taxes. The Loudoun Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to oppose the bill.
Reid withdrew his support for the bill, although under questioning from committee members—”I’m being very serious, I’m looking for your preference on this,” said one member. “I’m to ask you straight out how you want me to go” said another—he would not directly ask them to vote it down.
“I think at this point in the discussions with the administration that it is probably not the Board of Supervisor’s desire that this bill go forward, and so therefore I am respectful of that,” Reid said.
The committee voted 9-6 to let the bill die in committee for the year.