Virginia cites high toll rates in proposed 'buyback' of private toll road

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Virginia taxpayers may end up spending millions of dollars to buy back a privately operated toll road.

Lawmakers are searching for the means to buy back the 14-mile Dulles Greenway, saying the state can set toll rates lower than the current operator, a consortium owned by Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia.

Without a buyback, tolls on the Dulles Greenway would be allowed to increase a minimum of 2.8 percent per year through 2020. After that, through the end of the concession agreement in 2056, toll rates would be set by the State Corporation Commission.

The base rate for trucks is twice the two-axle rate plus additional charges by the axle. A five-axle truck would pay $17.50 based on a $5 rate for passenger vehicles. If the rate for passenger vehicles moves to $6, the five-axle rate would jump to $21.

Lawmakers believe a state-operated tolling authority could do it cheaper.

If Virginia were to buy the Dulles Greenway, it would not be the first government to assume control of a privately operated toll road.

In December 2011, the San Diego Association of Governments purchased the rights to the South Bay Expressway – also known as State Route 125 – for $341 million. The Macquarie subsidiary that opened the South Bay Expressway in 2007 reported low traffic numbers and filed for bankruptcy just three years into its 35-year concession agreement with the state.

Upon taking over the roadway, the San Diego Association of Governments immediately reduced toll rates to boost traffic.

In Virginia, the Dulles Greenway has experienced lower traffic counts and higher toll rates in recent years – a formula not unlike South Bay and other public-private toll roads. The most recent report available on Macquarie Infrastructure Group’s website shows traffic on the Dulles Greenway was down 2.6 percent in 2011. Toll increases boosted toll revenue up 2.6 percent to make up for the loss.

In 2005, Macquarie invested $533 million to acquire majority ownership of TRIP II, the agency that initially financed the Dulles Greenway as an extension of the Dulles Toll Road.

Combined, the Macquarie-owned Greenway and the Dulles Toll Road, which is operated by the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, provide access to the Dulles International Airport in the DC area.

Lawmakers also say Dulles Toll Road tolls are too high and are considering ways to ease the burden on toll payers. Currently, a portion of revenue from the Dulles Toll Road is diverted to fund the 23-mile Silver Line Metrorail extension that serves the airport.

Toll rates have gone up on the Dulles Toll Road every year since 2009, and more than doubled last year from $2.25 for five axles to $5.25 at the Mainline Toll Plaza. Tolls are scheduled to increase again in 2014, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority.

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