Va. attorney general opposes Dulles Greenway toll increase in Northern Virginia

The eastern end of the Dulles Greenway near Herndon (via Google Maps)

The Office of the Virginia Attorney General is opposing a private toll road owner’s request for a rate increase.

In July, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, the owner and operator of the 14-mile Dulles Greenway that runs between Leesburg and Washington Dulles International Airport, filed a request with the State Corporation Commission to increase tolls by at least 21%.

[On Sept. 29], Attorney General Jason Miyares said he objected to the request. [link added]

“Traffic in Northern Virginia is a daily challenge, and rising inflation only adds to the costs of commuting to work,” said Miyares in a statement. “My office stands alongside Virginia commuters who feel this struggle daily, advocating for fairness and resisting toll increases. Virginians deserve every hard-earned penny, and we’re here to protect Virginians from unreasonable financial burdens.”

TRIP II bases 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 costing $5.25 during regular hours and $5.80 during rush hour. The proposed new rates for two-axle vehicles would be $6.40 during regular hours and $8.10 during rush hour.

The operator’s last rate increase request was denied in 2021. [FFXnow note: The Dulles Greenway operator’s latest request comes on the heels of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority increasing fees on the Dulles Toll Road for the first time in five years, starting this past Jan. 1.]

TRIP II said in its application that the increase will help it meet its financial obligations: “Only with the approval of the proposed tolls along with additional future increases will TRIP II be able to reach a place where it would have an opportunity to provide a reasonable return to its investors.”

Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Miyares, did not directly respond to whether the attorney general has any interest in lawmakers directing the state to enter into discussions with the toll operator to change how the roadway is managed.

However, she added, “Consumer protection is an important function of the Attorney General’s office. Northern Virginia residents and commuters have voiced strong opinions against the toll increase, and the Attorney General plans to represent that view in front of the State Corporation Commission.”

The proposed increases

TRIP II made the toll rate increase request after the failure this winter of legislation backed by the operator and Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration that would have let the state Commissioner of Highways, Secretary of Transportation and a steering committee negotiate new rates for the toll road. The proposal also included plans to reduce toll costs and implement distance-based tolling, which would charge drivers based on how far they travel.

Currently TRIP II is regulated by the State Corporation Commission under the Virginia Highway Corporation Act. That law allows the company to ask the SCC for a toll increase once per year but doesn’t permit it to negotiate those increases.

“TRIP II looks forward to continuing to work with the commonwealth to find a solution to how the Greenway is regulated to implement distance-based tolling,” said Renee Hamilton, chief executive officer for TRIP II, in a statement. “Drivers on other private toll roads in Northern Virginia pay based on the length of their trip. Drivers on the Greenway should be treated the same way. Filing a rate case application with the SCC was not our first choice.”

Since the Virginia Highway Corporation Act was enacted in 1988, the law was amended by two Northern Virginia lawmakers, then-Del. Joe May, R-Loudoun, and then-Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudoun, to authorize the SCC to set annual tolls during the period from Jan. 1, 2013 to Jan. 1, 2020.

Over the past several years, TRIP II has been granted several toll increases by the SCC. In 1995, the year the road began operating, the company charged $1.75 for two-axle vehicles and $3.50 for all other vehicles.

Since then, the surrounding Loudoun County has grown in both population and traffic congestion. Nevertheless, many drivers have refused to pay the Greenway tolls, and instead rely on other routes to travel through the county.

“Constituents want to pay less if they go to the toll, and that’s the ultimate goal,” said Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who along with Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, backed the past session’s bill to change oversight of the tolls.

In a July statement, Reid said TRIP II’s rate increase request follows the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors opposing proposals in recent years that he said would result in toll reductions. The supervisors expressed concern that they would not be included in the discussions and that legislation could lead to the loss of major county tax revenues.

“Because of the board’s active opposition to the bipartisan Northam-Youngkin toll reduction plans, parents, small business owners, service workers, real estate agents, and commuters from Fairfax, Loudoun, Clarke, and Frederick counties are now faced with an unsustainable 40% increase in tolls on the Dulles Greenway,” Reid said in the July statement. “Not only will it cost constituents more of their hard-earned money, this will increase traffic onto our already overcrowded neighborhood streets.”

Webert and Reid’s proposal to alter oversight of Greenway tolls ran into a roadblock this winter when other lawmakers complained the plan did not give the legislature any authority over a potential agreement between the operator and the state. They also voiced concern about an extension of TRIP II’s contract past its current 2056 expiration date and worried the change would lead to the state inheriting the operator’s debt. However, Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller III assured lawmakers that the commonwealth has no intention of assuming the debt.

In December, TRIP II said it carried a debt of $1.2 billion after refinancing twice in 1999 and 2005. The debt was due to such costs as construction, improvements and “weaker than anticipated traffic on the road.”

The operator also pays other expenses such as property taxes to Loudoun County, which have totaled over $65 million since the beginning of the roadway, and fees to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for use of an easement over the Dulles International Airport property.

The new criteria

The SCC will be required to look at TRIP II’s most recent rate request through a different lens than it has used in the past. After the provision under the Virginia Highway Corporation Act expired in 2020, the General Assembly passed a law requiring the company to prove that the proposed increase will not discourage too many drivers from using the roadway, is reasonable for drivers and gives TRIP a fair but not excessive amount of profit.

If the company is unable to prove any of the criteria, the SCC is not authorized to approve the proposed increase for more than one year.

Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun, who carried the legislation along with Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, now retired, said he’s not sure how the SCC will decide the current rate request, but believes the bill could help.

“I never feel 100% confident, but I feel more confident than if we didn’t pass the bill because we finally have a framework that helps the State Corporation Commission to protect people from exorbitant tolls that are unjustified,” Subramanyam said.

David Ramadan, a former Republican delegate who for years regularly tried to block measures favorable to TRIP II increasing tolls, said the company has failed to meet the requirements laid out in the 2020 law to request an increase.

“The SCC for the first time can look at the merits of the case without having to honor automatic increases by law,” Ramadan said. “We believe that they don’t have the merits for an increase. So that’s why there should be no action, whatsoever, by anyone legislatively until the SCC considers the rate increase case and adjudicates it.”

Photo via Google Maps. This article was reported and written by the Virginia Mercury, and has been reprinted with permission.