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2014: Changes coming to the Dulles Greenway

Wednesday - 1/8/2014, 9:09am  ET

Dulles Greeway (WTOP/Ari Ashe)
Drivers pay $4.90 each way at the Dulles Greenway toll plaza in Loudoun County. Next month, that figure could climb to $5.05. But a pending lawsuit against the Greenway owners could change the equation later this year. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

DULLES, Va. - With drivers paying almost $10 for a round-trip to use the Dulles Greenway, 2014 could be a key year in deciding whether commuters will have to pay more or less in the future.

Drivers pay $4.90 each way to use the Greenway, whether they drive one mile or 10. Add another dollar for the Dulles Toll Road exit, and commuters actually pay $11.80 round trip. Last week, Dulles Greenway owners Toll Road Investors Partnership II LP (TRIP II), a subsidiary of an Australian company, requested the State Corporation Commission (SCC) raise tolls $0.15 on Feb. 15. If approved, it would raise the overall round-trip to more than $12.

What does this mean to drivers? If an average driver spent $12 round-trip, five days a week, 50 out of 52 weeks per year, the total cost would be $3,000, or the down payment on a car.

"I didn't think they would do this. This is absurd. It's insulting. Insulting to every citizen of Loudoun County. Insulting to every driver who uses it from outside of Loudoun County as well. This is highway robbery. It's ripping people off," says Del. David Ramadan, R-Loudoun, who has filed suit against TRIP II over the toll prices.

Ramadan says he thinks the SCC should suspend the rate increase application until an ongoing investigation in complete.

Ramadan argues the TRIP II and the SCC violated Virginia Code 56-542 on the Dulles Greenway.

"Initial rates shall be approved if they appear reasonable to the user in relation to the benefit obtained, not likely to materially discourage use of the roadway and provide the operator no more than a reasonable rate of return as determined by the Commission. Thereafter, the Commission, upon application, complaint or its own initiative, and after investigation, may order substituted for any toll being charged by the operator, a toll which is set at a level which is reasonable to the user in relation to the benefit obtained and which will not materially discourage use of the roadway by the public," it reads.

Ramadan says the $4.90 one-way fares discourage commuters from using the road, and cause them to bail out to find cheaper alternatives.

"People are getting off before Dulles Airport on Route 28, then heading on 28 north to Route 7, or 28 south to Route 50, and that is creating a major, major backup on these roads that weren't supposed to handle this volume," he says.

"I had a husband and wife tell me that they had to make the choice whether to use the Greenway every day to save 45 minutes, so they could spend more time with their children, or do they avoid the Greenway, spend less time with their children, but be able to buy them new shoes or purchase a new car."

Other Loudoun County residents are worried about how truck drivers are cutting through local neighborhoods to avoid the tolls, dragging rocks and other debris into their yards.

Ramadan is also arguing that TRIP II owners should have distance pricing on the Greenway. On toll roads like the 495 Express Lanes or the Intercounty Connector in Maryland, drivers pay a toll based on how far they go. Shorter trips are cheap, longer trips are more expensive. But on the Dulles Greenway, the cost is $4.90, regardless of whether the driver goes one exit or goes end-to-end.

Distance pricing is also used on major toll roads like the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The SCC is investigating Ramadan's claims and a judge will issue an initial decision before March. However, that decision will automatically go before a three-member SCC panel for a final decision, which could come later in the spring. Ramadan considers his fight an uphill battle because the SCC itself approved all the toll hikes. To win, he needs to convince the same members who approved those hikes that they're illegal. However, Ramadan has already said he plans to take this all the way to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

He expects the appeal to come this summer, with a decision from the highest court before the end of the year. If successful, the court could order TRIP II to lower the tolls on drivers.

"This is somebody scamming the system. They're scamming the people, collecting money and sitting in Australia cashing in on us," he says.

Ramadan says the juiciest parts of the trial last month, including the findings from a forensic accountant, would shock residents. However, the SCC judge ruled those details would remain confidential and records were sealed. Forensic accountants are typically used in cases where business valuations are necessary, or where illegal or unethical financial practices have resulted in economic damage to someone.

TRIP II did not respond to WTOP's requests for comment by the time of publication.

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