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Toll haters stewing in silence?
About a dozen people speak at hearing on proposed rates for Intercounty Connector

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

If motorists are irked by the fact that the tolls they could pay to drive on the Intercounty Connector would be among the highest in the nation, they're not speaking up.

About a dozen people testified Wednesday night at a public hearing on the proposed toll rates for the 18.8-mile highway under construction between Gaithersburg and Laurel.

The Maryland Transportation Authority's board has proposed rush-hour tolls of 25 to 35 cents a mile for two-axle vehicles from 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Off-peak rates for two-axle vehicles would range from 20 to 30 cents a mile. The largest trucks would pay as much as $2.63 a mile during peak hours, according to the proposal.

"This is an anti-working-family proposal," Thomas E. Dernoga, vice chairman of the Prince George's County Council, said at the hearing at High Point High School in Beltsville. "It is an anti-working-family road."

Dernoga said lower-income motorists from Prince George's "will be stuck on the Beltway while people coming down from Howard County and Anne Arundel County in their Lexuses are on the Intercounty Connector."

Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's) asked the board to offer discount tolls to motorists who live near the highway.

"My constituents can't afford this road," Frush said. "Quite frankly, we find that this road is beyond our means."

A round trip between interstates 370 and 95 during the peak commute times would cost $8 to $11.20 daily, according to the proposal. State officials said they predict the average ICC trip would be 6.6 miles, which, for a two-axle vehicle, would cost $1.65 to $2.35 each way during the peak and $1.35 to $2 each way during non-peak hours.

The proposed rates would be among the highest tolls charged in the country. Toll rates across the United States typically vary from 2 to 25 cents a mile, according to AAA. Washington area motorists pay 9 cents a mile on the Dulles Toll Road and 10 cents a mile on Maryland's tolled portion of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. The next-most-expensive in the region would be the Dulles Greenway's peak toll, which amounts to 28.5 cents a mile.

State transportation officials say the proposed ICC tolls are comparable to those on newer roads, including two toll highways in Colorado and three in California, whose maximum peak rates vary from 27 to 37 cents a mile.

Some longtime ICC critics say the toll rates illustrate that the $2.56 billion highway is too expensive. Maryland financed $1.23 billion of the ICC's construction costs by issuing bonds that must be paid back -- with interest and on time. A consultant's report from September found that toll rates of 30 cents a mile during peak times and 25 cents a mile at non-peak times resulted in "near maximum toll revenue potential" from passenger vehicles in 2012.

State officials have said the tolls will be collected electronically -- there will be no stopping at toll booths -- via EZ-Pass transponders. Vehicles that don't have transponders will be mailed a toll bill, plus a $3 surcharge, based on a video image of the license plate.

Maryland transportation officials say the ICC is necessary to help east-west traffic move more quickly and safely beyond the Capital Beltway. However, environmental groups that have fought the highway based on the construction's impact on streams, wildlife and air quality are now criticizing the state's tolling plan as being more expensive than initially promised.

The groups -- the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Audubon Naturalist Society and Community Research -- said they have filed a public records request to determine why the toll rates are "significantly higher" than those included in the state's 2006 final environmental impact study.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the toll rates would hit lower-income commuters particularly hard. With additional traffic generated by new development that the ICC will attract, Schwartz said, local roads will become even more congested if motorists find the toll highway too expensive.

Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Authority, said the proposed toll rates are "comparable" to those considered during the environmental study, after inflation is factored in.

Four Maryland lawmakers who represent Prince George's County residents near the ICC's path also have proposed discount toll rates for motorists who live near the highway. Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said that request is under review.

The ICC is scheduled to open in stages, with the first 7.2-mile segment between Interstate 370 and Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County to open in fall 2010. The entire road extending east to Route 1 in Prince George's is scheduled to open by spring 2012.

A second public hearing is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Shady Grove Middle School, 8100 Midcounty Hwy., in Gaithersburg.

The Maryland Transportation Authority is accepting public comments until Nov. 23. The board is scheduled to vote on the tolls Dec. 17.

Public comments will be accepted in writing until 5 p.m. Nov. 23. Comments can be mailed to ICC Project Management Office, ATTN: ICC Tolls, 11710 Beltsville Dr., Suite 200, Beltsville, Md. 20705, or e-mailed to tolls@iccproject.com. Information is available at http://www.iccproject.com.

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