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Why Virginia Drivers Are Paying a $35 Toll to Drive Into Washington, D.C.

There’s a 2004 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David picks up a prostitute so he can use the HOV lane to get to a Dodgers game. The episode later became important when its footage of the game confirmed the alibi of a man facing the death penalty on a murder charge. But it remained funny because of the implication that driving in the HOV lane for 30 minutes could ever be worth so much.

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And then came this week in the D.C. suburbs, when Virginia’s infamous Interstate 66 offered solo drivers access to a highway that has been, at rush hour, reserved for carpools, clean-fuel vehicles, or airport travelers.

Starting Monday, if you want to drive peak-direction on I-66 inside the Beltway, you have two choices: Find a passenger or pay a toll that has soared as high as $40 this week.

It is a peek at the future of driving (and more), in which dynamic pricing will offer access to scarce resources. And it made people very, very angry.

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This particular case is, on the one hand, an interesting insight into consumer psychology, as NBC reporter Adam Tuss observed: “You now have an option to use a road during rush hour that you didn’t have last week. Simple as that,” he wrote on Twitter. (Except for drivers of hybrid and electric cars, who now must pay or take on a passenger.)

Certainly, some motorists had their plans upended because the Virginia Department of Transportation had projected that the tolls would average $5 to $6. Instead, a.m. tolls for the 10 miles of expressway surged to $34.50 on Monday and $40 on Tuesday before dropping to $23 on Wednesday and $20 on Thursday as solo drivers made other arrangements.

The sticker shock will wear off, and the top price (which changes every six minutes) appears to be stabilizing, but it’s far above what was expected. This reflects a precise objective on the part of the Virginia DOT: keeping traffic moving into the capital. According to VDOT, the average speed on Monday was 57 mph—20 mph faster than this time last year. The tolling mechanism is designed to keep traffic moving at 55 mph—if traffic slows down, tolls go up, and vice versa.

It’s one instance in a wave of new dynamic-toll experiments in Virginia and elsewhere. Reluctant Republicans had made a deal with Gov. Terry McAuliffe to allow I-66 tolling in exchange for widening the highway. Now, they say the rates are “unacceptable” and the timing (after the gubernatorial election) suspicious, and they have called on governor-elect Ralph Northam to clean up the mess. But without a paradigm shift in infrastructure spending, a big, thriving city cannot maintain the delicate balance between moving traffic, well-maintained roads, and cheap commuting for solo drivers.

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“This is what transportation costs!” David Alpert writes at Greater Greater Washington. In congested metro areas, the cost of driving is rising as the reluctance to raise the gas tax or find other sources of funding forces agencies to adopt other user fees. (And that’s to say nothing of paying for externalities like greenhouse gases, particle pollution, and noise.) User fees, including gas taxes, now cover less than half of road spending—down from about 70 percent in the 1960s, according to a 2015 report by Frontier Group. Tolling is a response. Dynamic tolling—enabled by tech that has abolished tollbooths—ensures roads run smoothly at peak times and nudges people toward carpooling and transit.

Moody’s is bullish on tolls. Toll roads have long been a popular choice for public-private partnerships (and with mixed results). But they’ve crept onto interstates too, thanks to congressional carve-outs that allow tolling to add capacity or make bridge repairs. Trump’s infrastructure white paper called for legalizing the tolling of interstates across the board.

This is good news insofar as it hastens the demise of our wasteful, expensive, and environmentally damaging transportation model. The sector, by the way, has now eclipsed power plants as the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. But this trend also poses thorny questions as the culture of the long commute changes. Once the burden of wealthy suburbanites who had fled the city, long car commutes—especially in high-cost metro areas with lots of traffic congestion—are now just as likely to be associated with service workers exiled from central housing markets or others chasing far-flung employment centers. In most cases, that also means they’ve been denied access to mass transit commutes.

Barring some new political reality, the rise of tolling is inevitable, and to the extent it can fund or encourage carpooling, transit, and transit-oriented development, that’s all the better. But the politics of user fees are challenging: Everyone hates them. The right can claim dynamic tolls are less of a “free market” than they are an imposition of big government (which, by the way, is trying to get you to share your car). And the left, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, can claim they’re a regressive tax—even in situations, like in de Blasio’s own city, where the practice would clearly function as a progressive transfer of wealth. The trick to making it feel like a good deal? Showing drivers they’re getting something for their money.

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