Getting my kicks on I-66

The Virginia Department of Transportation started tolling Interstate 66 this week, and boy, people are pissed.

A few thoughts after two weeks of dynamic tolling:

Lots of people were cheating the old HOV rules: The shock over paying the new tolls (which wouldn’t apply for those who were driving the road in compliance with the HOV rules) shows how many people had been cheating the system.

Some drivers feel wronged by changing policies, such as the increased HOV hours and the loss of the HOV exemption for hybrid vehicles, but those folks clearly don’t account for the huge portion of cars driving the tolls up.

Faster may not be the most efficient: VDOT was boasting that the average morning rush-hour speed was 57 mph. The speed limit is just 55 mph; and the old average was something like 37 mph.

The $40 toll isn’t the cost of reducing congestion; instead, it shows the marginal cost of keeping an urban expressway flowing at rural traffic densities, enabling free-flow conditions at the speed limit. It’s a useful reminder for all drivers of just how expensive it is to ensure the kind of speeds too many of them expect.

It’s not clear at all that this is the optimal policy for VDOT to set. They haven’t released any information about changes in traffic volume. The law requires maintaining average speeds of at least 45 mph; if VDOT were to accept lower speeds in the morning without introducing congestion, they might avoid some of the more exorbitant tolls and allow for more drivers to use the road.

There’s precedent for this: Minnesota experimented with a complete shutdown of their freeway ramp meters in 2000. The end result was a determination that they could dramatically improve the system’s user experience without sacrificing the main benefits. But, it took a legislatively mandated shutdown experiment to get MnDOT to make the changes in policy.

Clear communications matter: This isn’t Virginia’s first HOT lane project, nor is it the first time tolls have spiked (though most previous events could be traced to some kind of incident – poor weather, a bad crash, etc). So what explains the backlash?

A big part of the problem appears to be a misunderstanding about the toll rates. During the approval process, lots of folks had a $17 round-trip figure in their head. That’s obviously a lot less than $40 for one-way.

Fredrick Kunkle dug into this in the Washington Post:

“The bottom line is this is very different from what we briefed people it would be,” Del. John J. Bell (D-Loudoun), an opponent of tolling on I-66, told my colleague Luz Lazo.

Others have been blunter in saying the McAuliffe administration misled people. The Republican Party of Virginia accused McAuliffe’s administration of ensuring that the tolls would be switched on only after the gubernatorial election to choose his successor. Loudoun County Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run), who is also a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), urged the NVTC to pass a resolution demanding that the tolls be lowered or suspended.

The defense seems like an honest response, but it might as well be included in a reprinting of How to Lie with Statistics.

But Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration never misled anyone. He said that when transportation officials talked about a $17 average daily toll during peak hours, they meant what they said, an average — all short trips and long trips along that section of highway, and with peaks and valleys of demand.

So, that single number was averaging both the dynamic toll rates as well as the different potential routings. An average of an average. But most drives don’t take an average route, they take a specific one. And since the initial communications didn’t discuss a per-mile rate (or an estimated range of rates), it’s not hard to see why people might feel surprised.

Clear communications matter because policies like this have real promise. They depend on political support, and that will be harder and harder to find if people think they’ve been deceived. Tolling, particularly when perceived as a solution to congestion, can be a political winner. Whether the $17 expectation was intentionally misleading or not is beside the point; those expectations have to be managed or a program like this could lose support.

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