Dulles Greenway bill clears House but faces uncertainty in Senate
Legislation would consider whether changing oversight of Northern Va. toll road is in ‘public interest’
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sheppard “Shep” Miller III speaks during a transportation subcommittee meeting on Jan. 31, 2023.
Legislation aimed at reducing toll prices on the Dulles Greenway in Northern Virginia died in a Senate committee last week over concerns about the private toll road operator’s debt and the legislature’s ability to review any potential agreement between the operator and the state.
A companion bill in the House remains alive but will require Senate backing to go into effect.
Commuters and area residents have become increasingly concerned about rising toll prices on the 14-mile Dulles Greenway that runs through Loudoun County. Since 2012, tolls have risen from $4 for two-axle vehicles to $5.25.
In 2008, the General Assembly passed a law directing the SCC to approve annual toll increases as well as additional increases if necessary to cover the road’s operating expenses between 2013 and 2020.
“Our people who live in my community spend $400 to $500 a month on transportation, and if you go on that road, very few people are riding on it because it’s so expensive and other avenues are clogged,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “We need some relief here.”
Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, the patron of the bill, said the problem has gone on “for years” and is expected to continue as the Greenway seeks future rate hikes.
The Dulles Greenway is owned and operated by a private company, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, or TRIP II, and is regulated by the State Corporation Commission under the Virginia Highway Corporation Act. Under current law, the company is allowed to ask the SCC for a toll increase once per year but isn’t permitted to negotiate those increases. Changes to state law also require TRIP II to submit extensive financial information to regulators along with any application for a toll increase.
TRIP II has not requested a toll rate increase since its last application was denied in early 2021.
Marsden’s legislation, which is supported by TRIP II, would direct the Virginia commissioner of highways to evaluate whether it’s in the “public interest” for the Greenway to be governed under a more recent law, the Private-Public Transportation Act. Under that act, the commissioner, along with the Secretary of Transportation and a body known as the Transportation Public-Private Partnership Steering Committee, would be able to negotiate a new toll agreement with TRIP II.
A new deal to lower the toll rates may require a longer-term contract between TRIP II and the state, according to Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller. The current contract ends in 2056.
Backers of the proposal say moving oversight of the road away from the SCC will give state officials more certainty and flexibility to reduce tolls and potentially implement distance-based tolls, which would charge drivers based on how far they travel. The Greenway currently bases most of its pricing on the number of axles a driver’s vehicle has, with tolls for two-axle vehicles traveling from one end of the road to the other starting at $5.25 during regular hours and $5.80 during rush hour.
But opponents said the legislation doesn’t give the legislature any authority over a potential agreement between the operator and the state. They are also concerned that Loudoun County could be impacted since it receives around $4 million in annual property taxes from the toll operator.
“What we’re being asked to do is completely cut out both [the] General Assembly and the local government that currently benefits financially from this road altogether,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, during a January hearing.
McClellan recommended Marsden consider an amendment that would delay any “public interest” determination until the chairs of the Senate Transportation and Finance and Appropriations committees review any agreement, but the recommendation was not adopted.
Miller noted the Transportation Public-Private Partnership Steering Committee includes representatives from both the House and Senate finance committees, as well as members of the Commonwealth Transportation board and secretaries of finance and transportation.
“If we cannot deliver on [an agreement], we will walk away and leave it just the way it is now,” Miller said, “But you’re not going to get to distance-based tolling and you’re not going to get a reduction in toll rates if you leave it in the form that it’s in now.”
Finance Committee members also expressed concern about whether the commonwealth would take on TRIP II’s “significant” debt as part of an agreement. The partnership has between $1.6 billion and $1.9 billion in outstanding bonds.
Miller said the commonwealth has “no intention of assuming any debt.”
The committee killed the bill on a 10-5 vote.
Companion bill faces uncertainty
The House version of the Greenway legislation, House Bill 1858, from Dels. David Reid, D-Loudoun, and Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, is poised to clear that chamber this week before heading back to the Senate for further review.
Webert said he believes some language changes can be made to the House bill, which has received broad support, to make it more acceptable to the Senate.
“This is one of those pieces of legislation that is a ‘why not try and do this’ to ensure that we have lower tolls for our constituents, rather than kicking the can down the road and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Webert said.
Reid echoed testimony from Miller that moving the Greenway under different oversight would have no cost to the state. He also said the “public interest” consideration would involve an analysis of whether the change could lower tolls and allow distance-based pricing.
Reid introduced the same bill last year, supported by analysis conducted by then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and continued under Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
“Both administrations have now found that this is the way forward to being able to provide total relief to the residents of Loudoun County, as well as the residents from Fairfax, Clarke and Frederick County in the west,” Reid said. “This is an opportunity for us to do something to reduce the cost of living and to have a positive effect with rising prices in all other aspects of the economy.”
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