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Lawsuit could turn Va. tolls upside down, cost taxpayers millions

Friday - 9/6/2013, 6:21am  ET

RICHMOND,Va. - How much Virginia drivers pay to commute or pay in taxes could be decided by the Virginia Supreme Court as part of a lawsuit over tolls.

The lawsuit, filed by a group of residents from the Hampton Roads area, challenges the authority of the Commonwealth Transportation Board to set the toll rate on a public-private tunnel project there.

But the court's decision could also apply to similar projects across the state including the 495 Express Lanes, which opened in November on the Capital Beltway, and the Interstate 95 Express Lanes currently under construction from Fairfax County to Stafford County.

The two sides will present their arguments in front of the court next week.

Gov. Bob McDonnell says he's confident deals between the Commonwealth Transportation Board and private operators are legal. The suit argues that only the Virginia General Assembly can set toll rates.

"If that law would be invalidated, I think it would throw into question a lot of existing toll roads," says McDonnell. "There's a lot at stake."

If the state loses the case, taxpayers could be liable for repaying the hundreds of million of dollars the private companies put up to build the projects.

For example, the I-95 Express Lanes project will cost close to $1 billion and two private companies are paying for more than 90 percent of the project.

Dulles Greenway Tolls

The lawsuit comes as another group, which includes the Loudoun County government, challenges toll hikes being proposed by the privately owned Dulles Greenway. That toll increase is now under review by the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

The commission is currently reviewing the highway owner's request to raise the toll to $4.90 each way.

More than 5,200 people have already signed an online petition objecting to the tolls.

Opponents argue that the Australian company that owns the Greenway has not proven the higher tolls are necessary to make a profit.

Delegate David Ramadan, R-Loudoun, says the huge hike proposed by the private company is a clear violation of Virginia law.

The commission hearing is set for Nov. 12.

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