Higher tolls are coming to the Dulles Toll Road next January. The question remains how high.
The public had its first chance to weigh in on projected toll increases at an open house Thursday night organized by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the agency running the Silver Line rail project that will heavily rely on increased toll revenues for its financing.
The Silver Line is a 23-mile rail link connecting Washington, D.C to Dulles International Airport and beyond into the Virginia suburbs. Its projected cost is $5.5 billion.
Effective January, the one-way full toll would increase to $2.75, then to $3.50 in 2014, and $4.50 in 2015, under current toll projections. Rates would continue to rise two dollars every five years for the next four decades unless other sources of funding are secured to mitigate the toll increases.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Bayush Radadaya of Ashburn, who drives the Dulles Toll Road to work. “Right now I can afford it but once it doubles I cannot because gas prices are so much.”
Unlike a typical public hearing where residents take turns speaking into a microphone to a panel of officials, the event inside a high school cafeteria in Ashburn was informal. MWAA officials were on hand to answer questions, residents could read about the project on posters displaying charts and maps, and submit written comments into a cardboard box.
“You can throw a comment on a card but I’m not quite sure you necessarily have input,” said Pete Sabbatino of Ashburn. “The most input you are going to get is if someone read’s your comment card. It’s being dictated to you.”
The Airports Authority says public feedback will be taken seriously when establishing the new toll rates later this year.
“The benefit of the [open house] is that we have an opportunity to educate people about the project,” said MWAA CEO Jack Potter.
Toll revenues are projected to cover about 50 percent of the Silver Line’s total estimated $5.5 billion cost. The project was split into two phases; the tolls would cover 75 percent of Phase 2’s cost of $2.7 billion, under current projections.
Critics of the financing arrangement point to the lack of federal funding ($900 million for Phase 1, none for Phase 2) and relatively small contribution by the state of Virginia ($150 million). Potter says the airports authority is working to increase those figures, which would reduce the toll increases and give drivers a break. MWAA is requesting a loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program.
“It’s a 2.4 percent loan versus what we’re able to get in the open bond market of about six percent, so that would significantly lower our cost for financing the debt,” said Potter, who said Virginia’s contribution of $150 enabled MWAA to delay the $4.50 one-way, full toll rate until 2015. It was originally projected to take effect next year.
To Loudoun County resident Daniel Davies, the plan to finance a rail project out of the pockets of car commuters is unfair.
“"The toll rates plus what the toll avoidance is going to do to our communities and the traffic along Route 7 and Route 28 is just going to be gridlock,” said Davies, referring to drivers who will dodge the higher tolls on the highway by clogging already congested local and state roads.
Davies said he opposes the Virginia state legislature providing any additional funding for the Silver Line because the state already handed over the Dulles Toll Road to MWAA, an asset valued at more than $3 billion during the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine.
Read more TN coverage of the Silver Line here.