Report Suggests New Tolls For Region

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

Regional transportation and political leaders are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the only way to keep the chronically congested Washington region moving is tolls, and plenty of them.

A report to be released Wednesday pushes a regionwide system that would place tolls on most existing area highways, bridges into the District, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, George Washington Memorial Parkway and such major District thoroughfares as New York Avenue. The key to success, the authors say, is the comprehensiveness of the network.

Officials, pointing to the lack of any sizable investment in the region's transportation infrastructure by Virginia, Maryland or the federal government, say they see no other realistic options to keep traffic moving, accommodate newcomers and get desperately needed money to pay for new roads and improved transit. The tolls could generate more than $2.75 billion a year, according to the report.

"We've got to be straight with people," said Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), a Montgomery County Council member who worked on the federally funded study undertaken by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Policy Board. "These recommendations put them out there. It's pretty clear that there's no money coming from anywhere outside the region."

The Washington region has the second-worst traffic in the nation, and projections call for the region to grow by 1.3 million people and 1 million jobs by 2030, according to the planning board.

No one is suggesting building tollbooths in the middle of New York Avenue. The study envisions tolls being deducted through E-ZPass-like transponders as vehicles travel at normal speed. Tolls would range from less than 20 cents a mile to an average bridge toll of $2.80.

"Here we are in a rapidly growing region and barely able to maintain our systems, address congestion or add transit," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for the council of governments. "The needs are so great after years of not keeping up. Given the dearth of resources from other sources, it's time to really start to look at things."

The study, which will be presented to the council of governments' Transportation Planning Board, includes three scenarios. The first would add a series of new toll lanes to every freeway in the region, with tolls applying only to drivers on those lanes, a proposal that is seen as unworkable. The new roads and overpasses would be so costly and eat up so much land that it is essentially a non-starter.

"We can't build a duplicate highway network; it ain't gonna happen," Kirby said.

The report lays out two other scenarios that would add tolls to existing highways:

One would add tolls to all District river crossings and existing freeway lanes in the city, where there is no room for new or expanded lanes. The plan would, in effect, connect the 1960s-era highway network that was discontinued in favor of Metrorail. For example, the stretch of New York Avenue from the District line to the Third Street tunnel, which connects U.S. 50 and Interstate 395, would be tolled. Similarly, the stretch of Independence and Maine avenues that joins the Arlington Memorial Bridge and Southeast/Southwest Freeway would be tolled.

The most comprehensive scenario, which has captured the imagination of planners and government leaders, would toll every regional highway, plus all the regional parkways, including the Baltimore-Washington, George Washington, Rock Creek and Potomac, Clara Barton and Suitland parkways.

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