A Future Free From Gridlock, For a Price

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

Motorists would drive on the Capital Beltway during rush hour at the mind-blowing rate of a mile a minute. Drivers would zip from Fredericksburg to Frederick without hitting a single traffic jam.

In this strange, new world, people would run errands whenever they pleased, vacationers would leave town without spending hours in traffic, and express bus service would be launched on the region's major commuter routes.

But these dream scenarios come with a cost: a toll as high as a dollar a mile in heavily traveled areas during peak times. A 56-mile commute between the Fredericksburg area and Washington could cost as much as $30 if a driver chose the traffic-free route, according to one analysis.

These 21st-century traveling possibilities are the result of fast-moving efforts in Virginia and Maryland to build a network of express toll lanes -- roads on which tolls increase when traffic levels rise to manage demand and prevent jams -- that would parallel nearly every major route in the Washington area. The existing routes would remain free -- and packed.

The vision of a regionwide network of these highways has suddenly come into focus just a year after Virginia and Maryland first showed serious interest in the concept. Maryland plans to begin construction on its first express lanes next year, while Virginia plans to build them on a 14-mile stretch of the Beltway within five years.

The projects, many of which will be built and operated by private firms, represent a radical shift in the way highways are financed and operated and promise to transform the way drivers in the Washington area and the nation travel.

"If you look at the full potential of this for the region, I think it's the biggest thing since Metro," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "These are very significant and could be just the beginning. We haven't had highways of this magnitude in 20 or 30 years."

The shift to the private sector and to express toll roads mirrors efforts across the country to find new ways to pay for roads and manage traffic as congestion in the nation's urban areas increases and the effectiveness of the interstate system, which turns 50 next year, deteriorates.

Texas has launched an ambitious private-sector plan to lay 4,000 miles of new toll roads, while several other states, from Utah to Kansas to Georgia, are considering express toll lanes and other private-sector proposals.

The concept has gained currency as transportation leaders have switched their focus from "solving" gridlock to providing people with options out of it.

"We're creating choices that are not otherwise possible," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "By using variable tolling you can use a market mechanism to keep those lanes relatively congestion free."

Flanagan and leaders in Virginia also said they don't have any other way to pay for fixes that run into the billions. So it's toll lanes or nothing. "People just need to appreciate the financial challenge of adding a lane on the Beltway in each direction," Flanagan said.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company