“As long as people are willing to pay, that is what will drive the tolling,” Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s transportation secretary, said Tuesday at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, The Washington Post reported.
The tolls are in effect only on weekdays, from 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound and from 3 to 7 p.m. westbound. Drivers with passengers do not have to pay; on Tuesday, 41 percent of vehicles during the morning rush fit that bill. And before Monday, most single-occupancy vehicles had not been allowed on that stretch of I-66 during rush hour at all.
“No one has to pay a toll,” Mr. Layne said at the board meeting. “You simply could have put another person in your car.”
The backlash quickly took on a political dimension, with Republican officials accusing the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, of betraying commuters. The Virginia Republican Party noted with displeasure that the tolls had appeared only after the Democratic candidate, Ralph S. Northam, won last month’s election to succeed Mr. McAuliffe.
Tim Hugo, the chairman of the Republican caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates, said in a statement that he and others in his party had “worked in good faith” with Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Layne based on assurances that toll prices would average $6 to $7.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of days is unacceptable,” Mr. Hugo said.
But the criticism was not confined to Republicans. Danica Roem — a Democrat who was elected last month to the House of Delegates after campaigning on the issue of traffic congestion — said the tolls seen this week amounted to price gouging and called for a cap. Another Democrat, State Senator Jennifer Wexton, called the pricing “outrageous” and noted that not everyone had options.
Transportation Department officials have said that it will take time for traffic patterns to settle into a new normal, and that the prices are likely to drop. Spokeswomen for the department did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday evening.
Tolls that change based on time and demand, known as dynamic pricing, have become more common in recent years. When traffic gets heavy, the price increases to encourage people to car-pool, take public transportation or choose a less crowded route. It’s the same basic supply-and-demand principle employed by ride-sharing services like Uber, and it has been used or considered in places from Southern California to Singapore.
Dynamic pricing is one form of congestion pricing, which aims to reduce traffic by charging more in peak places, at peak times. As mayor of New York, Michael R. Bloomberg fought a decade ago to charge a flat fee for vehicles entering Manhattan at certain hours. The idea, which met with fierce opposition and died in the State Assembly in 2008, has recently been stirring again.
But even Mr. Bloomberg — who wanted a fee of $8 for cars and $21 for trucks — never contemplated a toll of $40.