For over two years, the I-66 project has been a major topic of conversation in our community. Perhaps even longer than that if you consider previous concerns over traffic and commuting. After many community meetings and plan revisions, the Governor and senior VDOT officials unveiled the first phase of the project, the installation of tolling infrastructure on I-66 inside the beltway. While this is not how I might have chosen to kick off the improvement project (I’d have preferred we break ground on the new lane from the Dulles Connector Road to Ballston first), the project is moving forward.
To many, the unveiling of the tolling infrastructure is an ominous signal that the end is near for the clean fuel plates exemption which has allowed single occupancy vehicles to use the HOV lanes inside the Beltway during rush hour.
This hybrid exception encouraged residents to purchase these innovative and exceptionally fuel efficient vehicles early on when the technology was new and relatively expensive. Given our high traffic area, I know many hybrid vehicle owners have enjoyed taking advantage of the HOV exception. I know this because many of them have asked me to help delay the sunset of the clean fuel plate exemption.
The state entered into an agreement in 1994 with the FHWA that allows Clean Fuel Vehicles (Hybrids) to use the HOV lanes along I-66, inside and outside the Capital Beltway, as long as the state could demonstrate that allowing those cars on the HOV lanes wouldn’t cause the minimum average speed to decrease below 45mph at least ninety percent of the time.
Unfortunately, increased traffic and congestion has resulted in data to showing that the average speed cannot be maintained for ninety percent of the time. As an interim step, the state stopped issuing new clean fuel plates in 2011 but grandfathered in holders of the plates who got them before 2011. Traffic has continued to degrade, however, triggering a sunset clause to the hybrid car exemption.
In addition to traffic management, some have argued the program is a necessary incentive to encourage ownership of more fuel efficient cars, reducing carbon emissions and generally helping the environment.
I’m not convinced of the environmental benefits of continuing this particular program. Why should we allow someone driving a Camry hybrid, for instance, which gets 26 mpg, to take up capacity on the HOV/HOT lanes (more cars equal higher tolls for everyone else) while someone driving a less expense conventional drive vehicle like the Ford Focus, getting up to 35 mpg, can’t use the lanes or has to pay the higher tolls? Why are we creating an incentive for this one particular technology? Simply giving hybrids a special exemption, while it may have been a good idea at the time, no longer makes sense to me.
Of course, if it didn’t do anyone any harm, why not let the hybrids keep using the road like they always have? The problem is that It costs everyone else who uses the road higher tolls because toll pricing is based on the volume of traffic.
I am sure that it’s disappointing to see this program, which has saved so much time and money over the years, go away. The truth is, I’m not a big fan of toll lanes and privatizing our roads at all. I’d love to see these roads remain free for everyone. We just haven’t seen the political will to raise gas taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements we desperately need.
Unfortunately, the current hybrid exemption vehicle program is not compatible with the HOT lane concept which VDOT has adopted and is moving forward with. Given the new reality, I don’t think it’s fair to everyone else who uses these roads to have to pay higher tolls to benefit a savvy class of early adopters.
I haven’t come to this position lightly. I’ve listened carefully to the arguments on both sides and done my best to keep an open mind. I understand that this is an issue on which intelligent and thoughtful people can disagree, and that some of my colleagues whom I almost always agree with are on the other side of this argument.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at [email protected]