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Dynamic Tolling Coming To Virginia Express Lanes

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A dynamic tolling system is set to open on a new section of the Beltway later this year.
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A dynamic tolling system is set to open on a new section of the Beltway later this year.

You pay for electricity, you pay for your phone and Internet, you pay for most, if not all, of the services you use every day. Why not pay for highways? Well, pretty soon, that will be the case in part of Virginia.

Virginia transportation officials are banking on drivers' willingness to pay a premium for a faster commute on the 495 Express Lanes set to open late this year. The new section of the beltway will use a dynamic tolling system still relatively new in the United States.

Emil Frankel, visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and a former assistant transportation secretary under George W. Bush, says governments need the revenue that tolls would provide, and charging a premium to use express lanes serves another purpose.

"When you think about highway space as a product, it's limited," says Frankel. "Supply is constrained. And the only way to control how that supply is going to be allocated is by pricing it."

Frankel says dynamic tolling is uncommon in the U.S., but has been a success on State Route 91 in southern California, where critics say the so-called Lexus Lanes would only be used by rich people.

In fact, the experience in California is quite the opposite. The lanes are most frequently used by people with limited time. Frankel says getting motorists used to paying tolls is hard because of the idea that highways should be free. Commuter Bevin Bresnahan, who was gassing up in Tyson's Corner when we spoke to her, typifies that attitude.

"I think everything should be free," she laughs. "We pay enough in gas, we pay enough in taxes."

The company that will operate the tolls on the 495 Express Lanes says the typical toll during rush hour will be between $5-6 dollars one way.

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