Last Tuesday, Virginia's State Corporation Commission held the first of a series of three public hearings on the higher tolls now being charged on the Dulles Greenway by Toll Road Investors Partnership II, operator of the privately owned toll road owned by the Macquarie Group, an Australia-based hedge fund.
The hearings are slightly after the fact, since the SCC already approved a 10-cent toll increase, slightly lower than TRIP II's 14-cent rate hike request, which went into effect on Jan. 21. So motorists have already been paying $4.90 for a one-way toll to drive on the Dulles Greenway during weekday rush hours, up from the previous $4.80.
Public backlash from Loudoun County commuters over the rising tolls convinced Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, to sponsor a budget amendment in the recent legislative session that would have had Virginia taxpayers purchase the Greenway, which is deeply in debt despite the state-approved tolls it currently charges.
But as The Washington Examiner pointed out in January, May didn't utter a peep of protest when former Gov. Tim Kaine handed over the state-owned Dulles Toll Road to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in 2006 without the General Assembly's approval, knowing full well that DTR tolls will have to climb even higher than those on the Greenway to cover the debt incurred to construct the Metrorail Silver Line.
Participants at a recent meeting with May in Richmond said he told them that the debt service on the Greenway bonds is more than three times what the private toll road has been raising in revenue. But the Greenway was built with private money by a company that voluntarily assumed the risk in anticipation of making a handsome profit.
There's no logical reason for the Commonwealth of Virginia to bail out Macquarie for its own miscalculation and socialize its considerable debt. People who don't want to pay up to $5 a pop to drive on the privately built and operated Greenway should just avoid using the road they didn't pay for. As other toll road operators have discovered, TRIP II will soon enough figure out that raising tolls beyond the level that the public is willing to pay is counterproductive.
The real problem is that the same thing is likely to happen with the publicly built Dulles Toll Road, and nobody is talking about that.