The State Corporation Commission on April 26 handed Loudoun commuters a rare victory over the Dulles Greenway, denying most of the tolls road’s requests for toll increases over the next five years.
The Dulles Greenway’s operators, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, which is owned by an Australian company, had asked to raise both peak and off-peak tolls every year for the next five years. The decision from the State Corporation Commission, issued more than more than five months after the last arguments in the case, mostly knocked that down: instead, the SCC approved only off-peak toll increases in 2021 and 2022.
That will mean a 5.3% increase in off-peak tolls this year to $5, and another 5% increase next year to $5.25. It also means that this year, for the first time in years, there will be no peak-hour toll increase on the Greenway, currently $5.80, unless the Greenway files and wins approval for another request.
“The SCC’s decision represents the most significant victory in opposition to TRIP II’s continued toll increases—ever,” statedSupervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “The County mounted a serious, well-reasoned legal effort to prevent these large toll increases, and I appreciate the work of our County Attorney and the entire team. I’m also thankful to our many citizens who participated in this process and allowed the SCC to hear firsthand just how impactful continued large toll increases are to them, their families and their businesses. There’s no doubt that our challenges with high toll rates are not over, but this decision is a step in the right direction.”
“We are pleased with this decision by the SCC, since a toll rate increase of this magnitude would have put a heavy economic burden on Loudoun County motorists,” statedLoudoun County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “The proposed toll increase would have had a disproportionate effect on small businesses and lower income citizens, many of whom cannot afford to use the Greenway at the current toll rates.”
Toll hikes on the Greenway each year were routine for years under a state law all but guaranteeing them. That law expired in 2020, giving Greenway toll opponents some hope that for the first time they could successfully push back on those increases. But at the same time, the Greenway’s owners filed for five years of annual toll increases as soon as the old law expired.
They ranged from a 5% increase on off-peak traffic for 2022 to a 6.8% increase on peak-hour traffic in 2025. If approved in full, tolls would have been at $6.15 per one-way trip in off-peak hours, and $7.90 in peak hours by 2025.
Loudouners made their feelings known on that idea, swamping the SCC with incredulous and outraged comments during the public comment phase of that case. Some questioned how the Greenway, which was built decades ago for hundreds of millions, today carries debt of close to a $1 billion. Others said they are already avoiding the road due to the tolls—referencing a law that toll increases on the Greenway should not discourage its use.
Then in 2021, a newly united delegation in Richmond got together behind a bill intended to give the state stronger oversight over those toll increases. It was the latest version of a bill introduced and killed in the General Assembly for years, but this time passed and signed into law.
The current and former state legislators behind that bill cheered the news in a press release Thursday, April 29.
“This decision is one of the biggest victories we have achieved in our fight against high tolls on the Dulles Greenway,” stated Sen. John J. Bell (D-13), who introduced a Senate version of that bill. “Toll increases on the Greenway have gone unchecked for too long, but it stops today. I’m proud to have carried this bill that puts the needs of Loudoun County commuters over Greenway profit margins. This is a bipartisan win, and I’m grateful to all of the Loudoun officials who supported us in getting here today.”
“My goal has always been no more toll increases. Laws passed years ago allowed these increases, which is why we fought successfully to change this moving forward by preventing multi-year toll increases and making it harder to justify any increases. This ruling was a great outcome given the current law, but with my bill we can protect commuters even more moving forward,” stated Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87), who introduced the bill in the House of Delegates.
“Loudoun County deserves credit for marshaling resources to fight this round of Greenway’s toll increases,” stated former delegate David Ramadan, Subramanyam’s predecessor, and who introduced the first version of the bill in 2015. “The County’s legal experts and analysis were successful in demonstrating that the majority of toll increases weren’t warranted.In the future, the new legislation passed earlier this year by Senator John Bell and Delegate Suhas Subramanyam will impose a higher burden on Greenway operators which will improve protections for commuters even further. I appreciate their bipartisan work and thank them for carrying on this fight which I started eight years ago.”
The new law seeks to create measurable standards whether toll increases would discourage motorist from taking the road. It also would allow debt refinancing only when necessary to operate, maintain, or expand the road and would not increase toll rates, seeking to close the loophole that allowed the Greenway to amass around a billion dollars in outstanding debt and count that against its profitability.
If the Greenway seeks to stay privately owned beyond 2056, when it is set to become public property, it must make new 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 also limits the Greenway to apply for toll increases one year at a time in the future.
The SCC ruling this week, which was filed in 2020, was not governed by the new law.
This article was updated April 29 at 3:02 p.m. with comment from Loudoun supervisors.