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Dr. Gridlock
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Posted at 10:27 AM ET, 12/07/2011

Drivers remain curious about Intercounty Connector

The tolling that resumed Monday may have damped drivers’ enthusiasm for Maryland’s Intercounty Connector , but they do continue to ask questions and offer suggestions about the highway.

Several issues came up during my online chat Monday, and there were several others that I couldn’t get to but can address now. Many travelers focused on toll rates, speed limits and congestion.

Several travelers have asked about the possibility of commuter rates, with one putting it this way in the Monday chat:

“During the free period of the past week, I used the ICC (MD 200) to commute to work. It’s not a time saver for me given that my regular route takes approximately the same amount of time — give or take for congestion and accidents. But it’s a huge chunk of change for me to commit to using ICC daily.

“So for now, I’m back to my old route and will not switch to that lovely ride from I-95 to Georgia Avenue due to cost. Any consideration to commuter rates? A monthly fee perhaps? Then I’d be interested.”

Electronic message boards now announce the prices to certain destinations along the connector as drivers approach the entrances to the toll road.

At rush hour, it costs $4 to drive the entire route between I-95 and I-370, paying with an E-ZPass. A driver who enters at I-95 and gets off at Georgia Avenue pays $2.60 in the peak period.

That’s not something drivers in the D.C. region are used to. We have few tolls, and the connector is different from any of the others, because the price varies with the time of day.

The Maryland Transportation Authority has several goals for the toll system. It wants to pay the bills for constructing the highway. And it also wants to use a variable toll to help manage congestion.

It’s hard to say how that will work out over the next several decades.

I asked Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the authority, about the idea of having a commuter rate for the connector.

She said a typical discount package similar to those at Maryland’s other toll facilities (like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge) would not help manage congestion.

I understand that: If you give commuters a break on their regular peak-period trips, you’ve probably knocked down the price so it’s comparable with the off-peak rate. Then what’s the point of having a variable toll to manage traffic?

Note that Maryland’s variable toll for the connector is different from the system that Virginia will use to manage traffic in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the Capital Beltway when they open late next year.

The HOT lanes toll will vary depending on the level of traffic congestion, rather than the time of day.

Most drivers won’t pay these tolls for everyday commuting. They’ll use them occasionally, when they need a reliable trip free of delays so they can keep appointments, or they’re just fed with the traffic congestion.

Our I-95/Georgia Avenue commuter would be paying $26 a week to use the connector at rush hours with an E-ZPass. But if an I-95 driver heading south toward the Beltway heard the traffic at the I-95/Beltway interchange was even heavier than normal and I-95 was backed up for miles, that driver might be tempted to cut around the jam by taking the connector that morning.

The other cost concern drivers have is Maryland’s monthly maintenance fee of $1.50 on E-ZPass accounts. Drivers tell me they’ve found better deals on E-ZPasses with Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware, but there are many other jurisdictions that issue the passes, and drivers can comparison shop.

Spending the time to look for a deal may make sense for drivers who use E-ZPass very rarely. But more frequent users should know that Maryland now waives the $1.50 fee for accounts used to pay at least three tolls in Maryland during the previous month.

I’ll write more about your connector concerns in upcoming posts, but also see my Intercounty Connector user’s guide.

By  |  10:27 AM ET, 12/07/2011

Categories:  Commuting, Highways, Maryland

 
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