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The great northern Virginia toll controversy, explained

If you live in the Washington, DC, region, chances are you've been seeing a lot of ads like this on local TV:

Hal Parrish, the Republican state Senate candidate for Virginia's 29th District (which includes Manassas and some of Prince William County), is making a very inflammatory claim here: that Virginia's Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, and Parrish's Democratic opponent Jeremy McPike would impose a new $17-a-day toll on a portion of I-66, which runs from northern Virginia (including Prince William, Manassas, Fairfax, and Arlington) to Washington, DC.

For someone commuting from Manassas to DC for work 250 days out of the year, that'd mean $4,250 more in tolls annually. Even though the 29th District leans left — President Obama won it by 28 points in 2012, and McAuliffe won it by 18 in 2013 — that sounds like a massive enough toll hike to make even many Democrats tempted to vote GOP. And the election's tomorrow.

Here's the thing, though: The claim is not true.

What McAuliffe is proposing is an optional fee for single drivers who want to use a stretch of I-66 during peak hours — something they're currently barred from doing. No one's tolls would increase unless they chose to take advantage of that service.

What McAuliffe is actually proposing

Many cars.
I-66, looking congested.
Stephanie K. Kuykendal / Washington Post

Currently, between the Capital Beltway and DC, I-66 bars single-occupancy vehicles during peak hours: between 6:30 and 9 am on the way to DC, and from 4 to 6:30 pm on the way from DC. There are some exceptions — notably for traffic going to Dulles International Airport, and for hybrid or electric vehicles registered before 2011 — but in general, if you're commuting on that part of I-66, you need to be carpooling.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is proposing a number of changes to this. The basics, per a presentation the department released in September, are:

  • Stop banning single-occupancy vehicles, and instead allow them to pay a toll to use I-66 during peak times.
  • Have that toll vary with traffic so as to minimize congestion.
  • Expand the affected hours to 5:30 to 9:30 am and 3 to 7 pm.

The plan initially called for transforming I-66 from HOV-2 — that is, vehicles with two or more people can ride free — to HOV-3, where only cars with three or more people can ride free during peak hours. It would've also imposed a mild toll on cars going against traffic during rush hour that currently don't pay to use I-66. Both of those changes have since been abandoned.

The DOT estimates that, assuming I-66 stays HOV-2, morning tolls would peak at $9 and evening tolls would peak at $8. That's where the $17-a-day figure comes from. But that's pretty misleading. Those are the absolute peak figures, for someone who manages to hit the worst traffic going both to and from work on a given day. That's not especially likely, and some days tolls would never go that high. Also, for what it's worth, the tolls would be lower if I-66 became HOV-3, as originally planned.

But the most important caveat is that we're talking about fees for single-occupancy vehicles on I-66, whereas such vehicles are currently illegal during peak hours. There's no constituency that's currently using I-66 toll-free that's going to be forced to start paying for it. Everyone currently using I-66 with high-occupancy vehicles will keep doing that for free. But people currently commuting via other routes will now have the option to pay to use I-66 if that would be faster for them.

Transportation wonks like the idea

Hot. Bikeshare. Action.
Bikers would benefit from the I-66 plan.
Getty Images / Melissa Kopka

This might all seem arcane, but transit advocates are generally fans of the proposal. Greater Greater Washington's Richard Price and Canaan Merchant note that the plan's congestion pricing could make traffic flow more easily during peak times. The I-66 plan also includes more bus service for northern Virginia — and if traffic is flowing well, that makes bus service faster and more reliable. GGW's David Cranor notes that the toll revenue would go not only to improved bus service but to pedestrian and biking improvements as well.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has endorsed the proposal as well. The group notes that the tolls are pretty competitive with pricing for the Metro. Taking the Metro from the Vienna station to Metro Center, including parking, costs $10.30, compared with a $9 peak fare for taking I-66 from Vienna to DC. Similar toll lanes on I-95 and I-495, two other major DC-area interstates, have seen maximum tolls of $20.90 and $15.05, respectively. Next to that, the $8 to $9 one-way toll in the I-66 proposal looks quite reasonable.

CSG and GGW's Price and Merchant also note that the proposal would head off proposals to widen I-66, which have surfaced over the years. Widening, transit activists argue, would only encourage more cars to get on the road, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and would disrupt numerous homes and quite possibly the commuter bike trail in northern Virginia.

Why the issue matters

The toll attacks have a lot of money behind them. House Republicans have spent $850,000 on attack ads involving the toll proposal, which is a huge amount for state legislative races. Parrish, the state Senate candidate, has raised $1.4 million alone, and is spending on attack ads on the issue even though McPike, his Democratic opponent, opposes the tolling plan. Democrats have spent even more cash pushing back in these races, especially if you include the millions that Everytown for Gun Safety — the Michael Bloomberg–backed pro-gun control group — has poured into the state, including funding the anti-Parrish ad above. As a Washington Post headline put it last week, the election increasingly boils down to "tolls v. guns."

While Republicans will almost certainly maintain control of the state house, the fate of the state Senate hangs in the balance. Control of the chamber has flipped twice in the past two years, with a special election tipping the balance to Democrats in late January 2014 and a Democratic senator's resignation in June tipping it to the Republicans. The GOP still has a majority, but with a razor-thin 21-19 margin, and the state's Democratic lieutenant governor means that Democrats only need to make it 20-20 to take control again. McAuliffe has said that a Democratic Senate could be enough for him to finally push through Medicaid expansion in the state. That's doubtful given GOP control of the House, but it certainly would help his policy agenda on the margins.

Side note: Off-year elections are bullshit

Any post about Virginia's 2015 elections wouldn't be complete without noting that they shouldn't exist at all.

Virginia is one of five states to hold gubernatorial elections on odd years. But it also holds legislative elections on odd years when the governor is not up for reelection. It's like a midterm election to a midterm election. And the consequence is that basically no one votes in these things. In 2012, when there was a presidential election, turnout was a whopping 71.78 percent. In 2014, when there was a US Senate race and US House elections, it was 41.6 percent. In 2013, when there was a governor's race, turnout was 43 percent, or around midterm levels. But in 2011, the last year when these kind of weird state-level midterms happened, turnout was only 28.61 percent.

In an ideal world, midterms wouldn't exist at all, and the larger, more diverse electorate that turns out during presidential elections would get to vote for every office. But the least Virginia could do would be to move Senate elections so they're aligned with gubernatorial elections and extend House terms to four years so they sync up as well. As it stands, a pathetically small chunk of the voting population is deciding these races.

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