If you travel inbound to Washington on the 14th Street Bridge, you may have taken occasional notice of the old railroad bridge to the right, just past the adjacent Yellow Line Metro bridge. The railroad bridge serves the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), bringing commuters to Washington from as far as Fredericksburg and Manassas. It’s also a bottleneck for Amtrak and rail freight in the mid-Atlantic region.
With passenger and freight demand expected to increase, additional rail capacity over the Potomac is needed. Planning is underway by Virginia, D.C. and the federal government to do so. Unfortunately, present plans to finance the $3 to $4 billion project would come at the expense of other transportation efforts aimed at reducing congestion.
Peak period tolls were imposed on solo drivers a little more than two years ago on I-66 inside the Beltway. The law requires that toll payers receive a benefit from the collected toll. Funding transit with tolls to reduce congestion on the I-66 corridor is how this obligation is met. Toll collections on I-66 inside the Beltway total about $17 million per year.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) is responsible for funding new transit projects with toll money. NVTC, which consists primarily of local elected officials and state legislators, selects projects based on merit, especially projects that provide meaningful congestion relief relative to cost. Examples of the nearly two dozen toll-funded projects already approved include non-stop bus service from central Fairfax County to D.C., another non-stop from Gainesville to the Pentagon, expanded park and ride lots in Loudoun and additional buses on existing routes in Arlington and elsewhere in the region.
As part of a complex finance plan, state transportation officials have asked the NVTC to divert approximately half of the I-66 toll revenue for the next 35 years to pay for part of the rail bridge project. Doing so would be short sighted. It would slow needed congestion-reducing transit improvements on I-66 for decades. It would also limit the use of toll money for financing future mega-projects such as an extension of the Orange Line, a second Rosslyn Metro tunnel or widening of I-66 inside the Beltway beyond the current work. Moreover, a 35-year financing commitment effectively ties the hands of state and local officials from modifying the tolls or making other transportation choices based on future trends in regional population growth and transportation technology.
How would diverting toll money for new rail capacity over the Potomac benefit toll payers on I-66, as the law requires? It wouldn’t. State officials imagine more rail capacity over the Potomac will increase the number of VRE trains and therefore induce some future I-66 motorists who drive to D.C. to ride the train instead. But VRE stations are nowhere near I-66 except in the Manassas area — and the closest is five miles from I-66. The idea that a new Potomac rail bridge will increase the number of I-66 motorists who park and ride at a Manassas area VRE station isn’t believable. The bottom line is that diverting nearly half of the I-66 toll money away from transit for the next 35 years in exchange for no measurable benefit would create and prolong congestion — just the opposite of what toll money is supposed to do.
Should the state’s plan go forward and somehow survive a likely court challenge, it may lose in the court of public opinion by creating winners of VRE riders and losers among those who use bus service and other forms of transit. Further to this point, according to recent surveys, 85 percent of VRE riders have annual incomes exceeding $100,000. Among our region’s bus riders, 52 percent have annual incomes of less than $30,000. It’s remarkable that the unfairness of this disparity has gone unnoticed by advocates of the state’s financing plan.
There is a win-win alternative to the state’s win-lose plan. VRE riders could pay another dollar or so per ride to help finance the rail bridge project, which would generate about the same cash flow as diverting half of the I-66 toll money. This makes sense, as VRE riders would be the direct beneficiaries of the expanded rail bridge capacity. Toll money would continue to be available for new transit service or to help finance future mega-projects on the I-66 corridor.
With a wink and a nod from the NVTC, the issue of financing expanded rail service across the Potomac is likely to be considered by the Commonwealth Transportation Board at its February 20 meeting. Since the Virginia General Assembly is in session in Richmond, Northern Virginia’s legislators need to act now to prevent the Board from diverting I-66 toll funds to the detriment of their constituents.
Mr. LeMunyon recently concluded a five-year tenure on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.