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Paying the toll for Maryland's new highway

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 9:14 PM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Thanks for the"driver's manual" for the Intercounty Connector [Commuter page, Feb. 20]. However, one question remains unanswered.

How much does the E-ZPass transponder cost? What documents do you need to buy it? And do you pick it up at the Motor Vehicle Administration station on the same day that you request one?

Vijay Sazawal, Potomac

This was one of the most frequently asked questions from travelers during the past week. The other was how to make sure they didn't accidentally get caught paying the Intercounty Connector toll by wandering onto the new highway.

The second is pretty simple: Drivers who have been taking Interstate 370 or Shady Grove Road to reach the Shady Grove Metro station need not fear. The connector is a new road. It doesn't absorb the old roads. So there's no toll for doing what you have been doing.

If you think you're going to use the connector a couple of times a year, then it's probably not worth having an E-ZPass just for that. Instead, you can just pay Maryland the toll plus an extra $3 service charge the state will impose for taking a picture of your vehicle's license plate and sending a bill to the vehicle owner.

If you want to sign up for an E-ZPass, there are several ways to do it. But first, note that an E-ZPass from any of the two-dozen transportation agencies in the 14 states that issue them - including Virginia - will work on the ICC.

If you set up a Maryland E-ZPass account, there's a $21 fee for each transponder, plus a monthly account-maintenance fee of $1.50.

You can enroll with Maryland by filling out a form at www.ezpassmd.com. If you can't do that, call the E-ZPass toll-free customer service number at 888-321-6824.

You can set up an account that is replenished by cash or check, but by far, the easiest thing is to have an account automatically replenished through a credit card.

There's also a retail program called E-ZPass "On the Go." This allows drivers to visit retail locations, including the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration offices in Gaithersburg and Beltsville, in the heart of ICC Land. There, you can pick up a transponder and start using it right away. (Tolling on the ICC starts March 7. The $3 service charge for the license-plate bills starts April 6.)

If you choose the"On the Go" system, you'll be charged $46 when you pick up the transponder at the retail location. This covers the $21 transponder fee and gives you a prepaid toll balance of $25. But then you must visit the E-ZPass Maryland Web site and register your transponder within seven days of its first use.

Cheryl Sparks, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the ICC, said that the start of tolling might moderate the worst impact of the ICC's opening that I saw: the traffic congestion around the ramps at Norbeck Road at the highway's the eastern end. Some drivers who are testing the highway for free and adding to the congestion are likely to drop out once the authority starts charging $1.45 for a rush-hour trip, she said.

Within a year, the congestion caused by the ICC opening at Norbeck will disappear anyway, because those ramps will be closed when the rest of the highway opens.

Of course, a fix can't wait for a solution that distant. On one of my test drives last week, I was stuck in a few hundred yards of ramp traffic for as long as it took me to travel the rest of the eastbound ICC from Shady Grove. One driver, apparently acting in frustration with the long wait, did a U-turn on the ramp and headed back west. But that way lies madness. There's no exit on the westbound connector until drivers reach Shady Grove.

Such long waits would certainly drive motorists away from the new highway. No one would want to pay $1.45 for the privilege of sitting in that ramp traffic, and it defeats the concept behind the construction of the highway.

I'd rather see a reasonable number of drivers continue to take advantage of this huge state investment, even in the first year when just a short segment is open.

No transportation project opens without hitches. Highway engineers know that drivers need time to adjust to new traffic patterns. That will be true in the connector's case, but I doubt that drivers will completely resolve the ramp congestion on their own.

Sparks said traffic engineers who control things like signal-light timing are monitoring what's happening at the Norbeck bottleneck and can make adjustments. That's the kind of progress we should watch for over the next few weeks.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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