It’s the day commuters have been dreading. Or looking forward to, in some cases. Monday, Dec. 4, is the day that tolls go into effect on I-66 inside the Beltway. It’s also the day that hybrids and Dulles airport travelers no longer get a free ride on the thin strip of asphalt, which for years has been artificially constrained at the insistence of Arlington County, which nevertheless continues adding traffic-generating office towers and high-density residences along the stymied byway.
The tolls, collected through E-ZPass, will be in effect eastbound from the Beltway to Rosslyn from 5:30 until 9:30 a.m. and westbound from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. The lanes will be free the rest of the time, as they are now.
All vehicles traveling during these periods will need an E-ZPass transponder, and HOV-2+ vehicles will need an E-ZPass Flex transponder switched to HOV-mode to travel for free.
How much will the tolls be? That will vary with how congested I-66 is. The more demand there is, the higher the toll will be. The I-495 Express Lanes tolls range from $2 or less at slack times to more than $20 at busier times, depending on the exact route. Since the I-66 tolls will only be in effect during rush hours, they are likely to be higher than the low-demand tolls on I-495. Signs will post the exact toll at a given moment and that toll will remain in effect for cars entering the HOV lanes at that time.
Does no one escape? Actually, yes. Car pools — known locally as High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) — can travel for free if they have two occupants and a special E-ZPass transponder that lets them identify themselves as HOV. They may actually benefit from the new system, which in theory will drastically reduce the number of scofflaws using the lanes illegally. Since all vehicles will be monitored by cameras mounted on gantries high above the roadway, there will be little chance of solo drivers slipping through undetected, something that’s now commonplace.
The high-occupancy limit will be increased to HOV-3 when the I-66 express lanes outside the Beltway open in mid-2022. The change to HOV-3 will make I-66 consistent with the Capital Beltway, I-95 and I-395 Express Lanes, which currently are HOV-3, as well as other HOV-2 facilities throughout the region that will be changing to HOV-3 in the future.
Bus riders may also benefit. The Fairfax Connector is adding express buses from the Fairfax Government Center to downtown D.C., hoping to zip through the less-congested lanes. Other buses have been using I-66 for years but have often been slowed by the back-ups that are the curse of the ribbon-thin artery.
Critics are doubtful
The project is not without its critics. Many local taxpayers and commuters complain that they are being strangled as tolls spread throughout the area — on I-495, I-95, the Dulles Toll Road, the Greenway and, soon, I-66 outside the Beltway.
“Ah, the Politburo lanes,” said FairfaxNews reader Tom Johnston in response to an earlier story. “Our taxes paid for this road, its upkeep, and its patrolling. This toll will overcrowd nearby residential streets, and make them even less safe than they already are,” said Thierry Sagnier.
But others say the plan is nothing new and may even work.
“I-66 inside the Beltway was established under the 1977 Coleman Decision as a multimodal corridor with Metrorail in its median and HOV restrictions for all drivers using I-66 during peak commuting hours in the peak direction. With HOV-2 in effect and enforced, I-66 is almost never congested, even where it’s only two lanes wide in each direction,” said Allen Muchnick of Manassas.
“The problem has been that the I-66 HOV restrictions have been difficult to enforce due to several lawful exemptions, the absence of police enforcement areas outside of the entrance and exit ramps, and rampant HOV cheating. Automated, dynamic tolling is a 21st Century alternative to HOV that allows any driver access to the road in a single-occupant vehicle if s/he is willing to pay,” Muchnick said.