By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009; B01
The toll rates that Maryland has proposed charging motorists who drive the Intercounty Connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties would be the most expensive in the Washington region and among the most costly in the United States, according to toll road experts.
The rates proposed Wednesday -- as high as 35 cents a mile during peak morning and evening commuting times -- would be more than three times those charged on the Dulles Toll Road (9 cents a mile) and on Maryland's tolled portion of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore (10 cents a mile). The next-most expensive would be the Dulles Greenway's peak toll, which amounts to 28.5 cents a mile. Across the country, highway toll rates typically fall between 3 cents and 25 cents a mile, according to AAA.
Peter Samuel, editor of Frederick-based TOLLROADSnews, said ICC drivers will probably find the ICC an "upscale" highway with faster and more reliable travel times than the Capital Beltway and jammed east-west local roads.
But when it comes to the tolls motorists are expected to face, Samuel said, "It's one of the most expensive, no doubt about that."
Samuel and other ICC supporters say the steep prices illustrate the financial realities of cash-strapped states such as Maryland. Funding the $2.56 billion highway required leveraging almost half the cost with $1.23 billion worth of bonds that must be paid back -- with interest and on time.
Those financial pressures could leave some motorists priced out. A round trip on the ICC between interstates 270 and 95 during rush hours could cost up to $11.20 -- more than some hourly wages.
"The person who will really be hit by it are those on the lower end of the economic scale who can't write it off [to an employer] -- the carpenters, the janitors, the maids," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Maryland transportation officials say it's unfair to compare the ICC with all toll roads, particularly those built 40 years ago, when road-construction costs were vastly lower than today. Older roads whose construction costs were paid off years ago, such as the tolled segment of I-95 in Maryland, have lower maintenance costs and don't need as much toll revenue, officials said.
The ICC's proposed toll ranges are "somewhere around midpoint" for newer toll roads, including express toll lanes in California, where peak rates can reach a dollar per mile, said Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority.
"I think you'd find our rates are competitive," Freeland said.
The first 7.2-mile segment of the ICC, between Interstate 370 and Georgia Avenue, is scheduled to open in fall 2010. The full 18.8-mile highway, connecting Gaithersburg and Laurel, is to open in spring 2012.
State officials say trips are expected to average 6.6 miles, amounting to a maximum rush-hour toll of $2.35 for passenger vehicles, according to the proposal. They said fewer than 5 percent are expected to drive the entire length between I-370 and Route 1, which would cost a maximum $6.15 each way during the peak. About one-quarter, however, are projected to travel between the I-270 and I-95 corridors, facing a potential $5.60 rush-hour toll each way.
The toll plan is under review during a 60-day public comment period. The Maryland Transportation Authority board is scheduled to vote on a final toll structure Dec. 17.
Freeland said he appreciates the feelings of "sticker shock" some motorists might feel upon hearing the proposed peak rates, but said tolls must climb during busy times to help keep the ICC free-flowing. He said even motorists who couldn't afford to use it daily will probably take it when they are short on time or absolutely have to get somewhere, such as to catch a flight or pick up a child. Those who don't want to pay the tolls will still benefit when the highway takes vehicles off local roads, he said.
Issuing bonds backed by toll revenue was the only way the state could afford to build the ICC -- a tactic governments are likely to rely upon more and more as gas tax revenue fail to keep up with road-building demand, Freeland said.
"Given the deteriorating infrastructure we have and our continuing need for mobility, to charge tolls is one way to pay for highways," he said.
More sticker shock may be on the way. The high-occupancy toll lanes under construction on Virginia's portion of the Beltway are expected to range from 10 cents to $1 per mile, depending on traffic conditions.