By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; B04
Rush-hour drivers on the first segment of the Intercounty Connector will pay about 25 cents a mile to use the highway when the road opens later this year, and truckers will pay more than a dollar a mile.
The tolls will make the six-lane highway, an east-west link outside the Capital Beltway, among the nation's most expensive to use. State transportation officials, who endured withering criticism last year about proposed rates, said Friday that the tolls are the lowest that could be implemented under a range approved by the Maryland Transportation Authority's board.
Elsewhere in the Washington region, drivers on the Dulles Greenway pay 34 cents a mile during rush hour. Highways in California and Colorado charge even more. But in other parts of the country, highway toll rates typically fall between 3 cents and 25 cents a mile, according to AAA.
"The highway is variably priced so we can manage congestion and have reliable travel time for motorists," said Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority. He said the trip between Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring takes 22 minutes on local roads and will take seven minutes on the $2.56 billion ICC. The ICC trip will be worth the price, he said.
Under the toll schedule, cars using the ICC during morning and afternoon rush hours will pay about 25 cents a mile for the first 5.65-mile toll leg from Gaithersburg to Georgia Avenue, slated to open later this year or early next year. Six-axle big rigs will pay more than a dollar a mile at peak travel times. Big three-axle buses will pay $4.25 at rush hour, $3.40 off-peak and $2.55 overnight. Tolls will be collected electronically. Motorists without a transponder will be billed for the tolls and a $3 handling fee.
Tolls for the rest of the road will be determined at a later date, officials said, and could be increased in the future. The highway is not expected to pay for itself, but Freeland said the ICC could cover many of its costs after five years, depending on revenue.
State officials have 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 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.
Most of the ICC's 18.8 miles will be in Montgomery County, and the highway is scheduled to be completed in late 2011 or early 2012.
Prince George's County Council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D), who represents the area near the ICC's eastern end, said he thought the size of the tolls could deter users.
"It sounds in line with what they were predicting, which is probably more than most people are willing to pay," said Dernoga.
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) echoed Dernoga, saying the tolls will do little to get drivers off local roads and reduce congestion.
"If it was about maximizing traffic relief, they would not have set the tolls so high," he said.
But John Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the tolls are "a major peace offering to motorists" and are lower than he had expected.
Sue Feldman, owner of Giuseppi's Pizza in Rockville, said she wasn't sure she would use the toll road. "Not that $3 is a lot of money. I would consider it, but it wouldn't be my first thought."
Frank Nupp, who works at an auto dealer on Rockville Pike and usually commutes by MARC train from his home in West Virginia, also would be reluctant to pay the tolls. "If I had to, I would," he said. "But isn't that everybody?"
Maryland Motor Truck Association President Louis Campion said the reaction of truckers would vary, depending on their operating expenses. A moving van carrying three or four employees might use the ICC to cut time that otherwise would be spent in traffic on the Beltway, he said. But a long-haul trucker carrying no passengers would do the math differently and might stay off the toll road, he said.
"We felt the range was too high," Campion said. But he said the rates announced Friday were "prudent" and could take some traffic off the Beltway.
Maryland studies estimate that 60 percent of ICC motorists will use the highway for about six miles, a maximum of $2 each way during off-peak hours and $2.35 each way during rush hours.