Highway of the future? Private roads: Bell tolls for Virginia flop, but high-tech Calif. route looks promising.

January 14, 1996

PRIVATE TOLL ROADS are making a comeback. In this nation's formative years, privately built and maintained routes abounded. Now that states and Washington are cash poor, risk-taking entrepreneurs are stepping foward again.

So far, results are disappointing. The four-month-old Dulles Greenway is floundering. This 14-mile route, connecting Leesburg to Dulles airport, is often deserted, with just 10,000 cars a day instead of the projected 34,000. Revenues are a quarter of expectations.

Unless owners renegotiate loans or find new investors, the Greenway could go broke. It just isn't making enough money to pay its debts, even after laying off a third of its toll collectors.

Perhaps reducing the $1.75 toll will spark interest. If not, this experiment may embarrass supporters, including conservatives like Virginia Gov. George Allen, who tout private roads over raising the gas tax for more highways.

Builders of the Dulles Greenway, which cost $326 million, erred in several areas. They based ridership estimates on out-dated studies, based financing on wildly optimistic numbers and anticipated too-rapid office growth.

Still, the highway may be a success some day. It takes a while to attract drivers, especially when they have to pay for the privilege. But if it saves time and makes driving convenient and pleasant, a toll road should do brisk business.

California's experiment is more promising. For starters, the 10-mile toll route is in a high-congestion area of Orange County. It is America's first fully automated road. A --board-mounted meter calculates your toll, which is deducted from a prepaid account. The $126 million private project opened last month..

Maryland officials are considering automated toll collection lanes as part of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River. Other candidates include a Salisbury Bypass along Route 50; the much-delayed Intercounty Connector in the D.C. suburbs, and an upgraded U.S. 301 from Crofton to Waldorf.

Technology might trim operating costs for these toll roads. But concrete paving is extremely expensive. Only in the most congested areas, where high volume is a certainty, are these private operations likely to succeed.

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