This article was updated Feb. 23 at 4:20 p.m. to reflect a reconsidered vote in the Senate.
After years battling the Dulles Greenway’s powerful lobbying firm—and often some of Loudoun’s own elected representatives—Loudoun’s state legislators have pushed a bill aimed at fighting the Greenway’s ever-increasing tolls through the General Assembly to the governor’s desk.
The Virginia Senate on Tuesday voted 33-5 to pass Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87)’s House Bill 1832. Its companion bill, Sen. John J. Bell’s (D-13) Senate Bill 1259 had already passed in both chambers. And now that language goes to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.
“I think many people in the delegation, including myself, had tried in good faith to find a solution that worked for everybody, including the Greenway, and we just found that that was never going to happen unless we pass legislation to protect Loudoun County commuters first,” Subramanyam said. “The Greenway is still welcome to come to the table and present a proposal that works for everyday commuters and for their business.”
The Greenway is the only privately-owned highway in Virginia, and governed by a law that applies to no other road in the state. For roughly a decade, it was governed by a temporary law that guaranteed annual toll increases, but limited them—a reaction to years of rapidly escalating tolls.
That legislation expired last year, putting the Greenway back under the regulation it was meant to replace. The Greenway’s owners immediately filed with the state requesting five more years of annual toll increases, raising rates more quickly than they have in the past decade. The State Corporation Commission, which rules on those requests, has not yet announced a decision in that case, although a hearing examiner’s report questioning some of the Greenway’s arguments informed the language in the new bill, its authors say.
The real test for the new law, if it is signed, will be if the Greenway’s owners, Australian-based firm Atlas Arteria, continue to ask for higher tolls. Then, Loudoun County’s attorneys will try their luck fighting those tolls under the new law at the SCC.
This year’s bill has many elements of bills introduced and killed every year since 2015 by then-Del. David I. Ramadan, Subramanyam’s predecessor. Even after leaving office, Ramadan stayed involved, helping assemble the coalition of lawmakers that pushed the bill this year.
Ramadan recalled how over the years, he and others have worked on the issue through every avenue—legislation, seeking deals with the company, even a lawsuit.
“Their lawyers and their lobbyists played every game in the book,” Ramadan said. “And when all avenues were exhausted, and when everybody that over the years that had come into this circle of stakeholders got at one point or another disappointed by them, finally we were able to put together a coalition this year of current and former legislators, along with the county, in a bipartisan manner.”
The new bill, he said, for the first time gives the SCC parameters for ruling on the Greenway’s requests for higher tolls.
The bill seeks to create measurable standards for evaluating whether proposed toll increases would discourage use of the highway. Under the law governing the Greenway, toll increases should not discourage its use. Many Loudouners already say they avoid Greenway tolls when they can.
It also seeks to close the financing loopholes that allowed theGreenway to amass around a billion dollars in outstanding debt, although the highway cost several hundred million dollars to build and was finished in 1995. It would allow debt refinancing only if it was necessary to operate, maintain, or expand the road and would not increase toll rates.
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.
All that, said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), another veteran of the Greenway tolls fight, means the county will have a better shot in the next tolls battle at the SCC.
“The most important thing to me is that the firm grip that the Greenway and their lobbyists had on the General Assembly has now really been broken,” Letourneau said. “There was just this firewall in place for all of this time that prevented any kind of legislation on this topic from moving forward. That has now been broken, I think that is something that the Greenway is going to have to consider, because that’s always kind of been their backstop.”
The only hurdle left will be if the governor decides to amend or veto the bill.
“I call on the governor to stand with the people on this and sign this Subramanyam and Bell bill as quickly as possible,” Ramadan said.