By Katherine Shaver
Friday, December 18, 2009; A01
A controversial new highway that will connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties will charge the most expensive tolls in the Washington area and some of the highest in the nation when it opens next year.
The board of the Maryland Transportation Authority approved rates Thursday for the Intercounty Connector, an 18.8-mile, six-lane highway designed to ease congestion on some of the most jammed roads in the region.
But the toll road will not pay for itself -- even with rates that will amount to as much as $6.15 each way for drivers traveling the entire length. Revenue from Maryland's seven other toll routes will help subsidize the highway's annual costs.
"The ICC has long been a controversial road, and they just made it more controversial," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "The question is: Can anyone afford to use it?"
Maryland transportation officials said the ICC rates -- 10 cents to 35 cents a mile, depending on the time of day -- are comparable to those on newer toll roads across the country, including express toll lanes in California with rates of up to a dollar a mile.
The next-most expensive toll in Washington is the Dulles Greenway's peak rate, 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.
Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said state studies estimate that 60 percent of ICC motorists will use the highway for about six miles, which would amount to a maximum of $2 each way during off-peak hours and $2.35 each way during rush hours.
"When you do the math, it's not really that high," he said. "It just looks like it on a per-mile basis."
The toll plan was approved over the objections of the Montgomery County Council and critics who said the tolls would leave many motorists priced out. The authority said 74 percent of the 380 people who commented on the toll plan said the rates were too high. The Prince George's County Council, which has opposed construction of the ICC, did not take a position on the toll plan.
The ICC's first 7.2-mile segment, between Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring, is scheduled to open next fall. The rest of the highway, extending east to Route 1 in Laurel, is scheduled to open by spring 2012.
Drivers will get a price break between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and will be charged a two-mile minimum, according to new elements in the plan that passed unanimously with little discussion. The authority had initially proposed a three-mile minimum, which some Prince George's residents had said would unfairly penalize them because interchanges will be closer together on the highway's eastern end.
Peak tolls of 25 cents to 35 cents a mile will be charged for two-axle vehicles from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Overnight, two-axle vehicles will be charged 10 cents to 30 cents per mile.
Non-peak rates of 20 cents to 30 cents a mile will be charged during all other times outside the new overnight period, officials said. Five-axle trucks will pay up to $2.10 a mile, amounting to $36.85 to travel the entire highway during peak periods.
State officials said the tolls must be high enough to make the highway an attractive, free-flowing alternative to congested roads. The tolls also must bring in maximum revenue to help cover the debt service on $1.2 billion in toll-backed bonds that helped fund the road's $2.56 billion in construction costs.
The state could not have afforded to build the ICC without the toll-backed bonds, an approach that cash-strapped states are increasingly relying on, said Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.
Financing new highways with toll revenue helps "get the infrastructure we need as quickly as we can," said Swaim-Staley, who chairs the authority's board.
Even the approved tolls will come up short, the authority's Freeland said. Toll collections on the ICC are predicted to reach about $60 million annually during the first five years, he said. During that period, the debt service and operating costs will add up to about $100 million a year.
Freeland said motorists traveling Maryland's toll bridges and tunnels will make up the difference. Maryland has long subsidized construction of new toll facilities by pooling toll revenue statewide, he said.
Montgomery council president Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the council's transportation committee, said that high tolls will discourage people from using the ICC, leaving local roads with the same congestion that the highway is intended to alleviate.
"They gave themselves a range" of tolls, Floreen said. "Let's hope they start at the low end."
The authority made concessions in response to public concerns, such as reducing the overnight fees, officials said. It also agreed to requests to charge motorcycles with sidecars or trailers as two-axle vehicles, even if they have three axles.
Freeland said the agency will set the exact tolls closer to the opening of the first segment. After that, the authority could alter the rates within the approved ranges with 10 days' notice. If the authority wants to change the ranges, it would have to release a new plan for public comment and board approval.
Although the rates would have to be increased if the highway becomes jammed, Freeland said, he does not expect the ICC to reach such congestion levels "for at least 10 years."
The ICC will be the first toll facility in Maryland to collect all revenue electronically using the E-ZPass system. Cash will not be allowed. Motorists without an E-ZPass will be mailed a bill with a $3 surcharge to their vehicle registration address.
Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.