Regional Panel Wary of Toll Plan

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

A plan to place tolls on most highways in the Washington area was greeted skeptically yesterday by members of a regional transportation panel, with some saying that many people have no choice but to commute by automobile and that tolls would be yet another financial burden.

"Let's look at transit and alternatives first before expanding tolling,'' said Victor Weissberg, a Prince George's County representative on the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

The board was briefed on an 18-month study funded by the federal government that explored adding tolls to all highways and parkways in the region and plowing the projected $2.75 billion in revenue into transit and road improvements. Planners and local leaders say they can no longer rely on the state and federal governments to fund improvements for the traffic-choked and fast-growing Washington region.

Most new highway projects in the region are being funded by tolls, including new high-occupancy-toll lanes on the Virginia part of the Capital Beltway and interstates 395 and 95, Maryland's Intercounty Connector, and toll lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore.

The report looked at whether tolls on existing highways would encourage transit use, keep traffic moving and reduce the need for costly new highways by using current highway capacity more efficiently. Toll rates would rise and fall based on congestion, to keep traffic moving. The Washington area has the second-worst traffic in the nation, after Los Angeles, and projections call for the region to grow by 1.3 million people and 1 million jobs by 2030, according to the planning board.

"The costs of congestion have been well documented,'' said Rick Rybeck, who represents the District on the panel. "If roadway prices can induce less congestion and fewer crashes, everyone will be better off."

Rybeck echoed the report in emphasizing that any tolling system should be comprehensive, such as those in London and Stockholm and one being considered for Manhattan.

"If we are to be successful using market incentives to manage traffic, this must be done on a regional basis," Rybeck said. "Piecemeal implementation will merely result in traffic diversion and not traffic reduction."

That is already happening, said Lori Waters, a Loudoun County representative. She said local roads are being jammed by commuters looking for a way around paying tolls on the Dulles Greenway, which recently raised its rates.

Representatives from several suburban jurisdictions said residents are forced into their cars not because they enjoy long commutes and burning expensive gasoline, but because there are no better alternatives.

"I don't think there are many recreational drivers on I-95 or I-270 during rush hours anymore, and I suspect they have regularly explored other options and would have taken them if they could," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which opposes any regional tolling plan.

Catherine Hudgins, who represents Fairfax County on the panel, said that although the report is persuasive, greater access to alternative transportation is needed first. "We cannot provide alternatives for every part of the region," she said.

Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington representative, suggested running express buses on the shoulders of the region's major highways, similar to a system in Minneapolis.

Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said there is no money available for any of the transit alternatives that were discussed. That is part of the problem, he said. One of the biggest advantages of the comprehensive tolling plan, he said, is that it would use the toll revenue to pay for transit alternatives for those who don't want or can't afford to pay tolls.

Board member David Snyder, who represents Falls Church, said the report is relevant now because "we're in an absolute funding crisis, we have the technology and it would reduce greenhouse gases.''

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