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  •   Md. May Charge to Drive in Fast Lane

    By Alan Sipress
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, May 18, 1999; Page A1

    If you are rich and alone, Maryland highway planners have a proposal that could put you in the fast lane.

    In groping for new tactics in the battle against traffic, the Free State may become one of the first to let solo motorists buy the right to zoom along lanes otherwise reserved for car-poolers. Highway planners are working on a proposal to introduce express lanes on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 or Route 210 for those ready to pay a toll.

    The planners call it "congestion pricing." Critics in Southern California -- where some drivers pay up to $4 a ride to put the "rush" back in rush hour -- call the pay-for-speed routes "Lexus lanes."

    Maryland has won federal encouragement to study its own version of the experimental congestion pricing -- a catch phrase for a variety of tolling arrangements that allow motorists to buy their way out of traffic or offer them cash incentives to drive when roads are less crowded.

    While the concept already is a generation old, the buzz among highway planners has intensified within the last year in large part because of the swelling public acceptance of two new programs in California.

    "The two projects have really drawn national -- if not international -- attention," said C. Kenneth Orski, publisher of Innovation Briefs transportation newsletter. "Suddenly, they've been on everyone's lips. There's a tremendous amount of excitement in the transportation profession."

    The underlying philosophy is that highways, bridges and tunnels can operate more efficiently if the prices that motorists pay for using them at different times better reflect the overall costs tied to gridlock and the resulting air pollution. For instance, said Martin Wachs, director of transportation studies at the University of California at Berkeley: "It costs society more to provide highway capacity at rush hour, and we should charge more for it."

    But critics warn that these tolled lanes will help the well-wheeled go faster.

    "It's giving the rich people an advantage. It means you don't have to sit in traffic if you have enough money to buy your way out of it," said Rob McCulley, who travels I-270 and the Beltway between his Frederick County, Md., home and his job in New Carrollton. "Everybody paid for it. Everybody should wait the same."

    Advocates of congestion pricing say that studies of California's tolled express lanes showed that the economic profile of their users matched that of all motorists on the highway. These lanes are often favored by contractors who choose to pay extra so they can schedule more business and by working parents racing to beat late fees at day-care centers. Moreover, San Diego has used the revenue from the tolls to operate bus service along the highway.

    On Interstate 15 in San Diego, the fees paid by lone drivers using the car-pool lanes can fluctuate every six minutes, and they are determined by the volume of traffic as measured by sensors in the road. The tolls paid on State Route 91 in Orange County increase as rush hour builds toward its peak. Drivers on both highways are notified of the toll by signs at the entrance to the highway, and they never have to stop to pay: They are automatically charged using transponders mounted on their windshields.

    At a time of mounting traffic and tight funding for highway and transit expansion, this approach has galvanized a peculiar alliance of environmentalists and free-market conservatives drawn to the use of prices rather than regulation.

    Pricing proposals, however, also have run into sharp opposition, especially when they are seen by the public as increasing the cost for using roads that are already unpopular because of exasperating traffic. Efforts to introduce fees on Minnesota highways and to use variable tolls on San Francisco's Bay Bridge, including rush-hour surcharges, were both widely viewed as punitive. They were dropped.

    Under the Maryland proposal, the state initially would consider adding High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, to one of the Washington suburbs' most heavily congested roads. Establishing this program on either the Beltway or Route 210 would entail converting existing lanes or adding new ones; I-270 already has car-pool lanes. The analysis, which would take a year, also would examine the introduction of variable charges on either the three Baltimore Harbor crossings or the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which already have fixed tolls. The Federal Highway Administration gave preliminary backing to the proposal this spring and is waiting for a detailed application before releasing up to $500,000 for the study.

    "I would expect that people would be skeptical at first," said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "What we have to show is when it is of value and make that case to the public." He called congestion pricing potentially a "very useful tool" for accommodating traffic without expanding highways and projected that the first HOT lanes could open within two years.

    "It's not going to fly," warned Tim Gallagher, a Vienna resident who braves the Beltway in Maryland most weekdays. "It's asking people to pay once again for something they've already paid for. Taxes are high enough as it is."

    But for Sharon Berry, whose daily commute often involves driving the Beltway between Laurel and Bethesda, a shorter ordeal could be worth the price.

    "If it makes my commute less stressful, I'm all for it," she said. "I'm from Jersey and I'm used to paying tolls. I don't mind paying it."

    Maryland's initiative comes amid a growing national fascination among scholars and highway officials with congestion pricing. Traffic has steadily worsened in many metropolitan areas, outstripping the ability of road crews to build highways and leaving planners scrambling for a new tack.

    The increased revenue from tolls is also alluring to transportation officials, who have seen the value of gasoline taxes diminish as cars have become more fuel-efficient. At the same time, advances in technology have made tolling more efficient -- for instance, by using transponders. Nothing has done more to raise the profile of congestion pricing, however, than the initial experience of HOT lanes in California and Texas.

    Their debut came four years ago on State Route 91, a privately built and operated highway in Orange County, Calif. Rush-hour tolls on the express lanes range from 60 cents to $3.20 during the peak hour. Vehicles with at least three occupants get a 50 percent discount.

    HOT lanes spread in 1996 to I-15 in San Diego. There, car pools of at least two people travel the lanes free while solo drivers are automatically charged a fee that increases as traffic worsens. The toll, which has never exceeded $4, can vary every six minutes, depending on the volume of cars measured by sensors in the road. The variable pricing is designed to ensure that the express lanes never grow so crowded that commuters lose the incentive to use them for car-pooling. This program has cut congestion but not as dramatically as on California's Route 91.

    A more modest version was introduced on Interstate 10 in Houston a year ago, allowing car pools with only two people to pay two dollars for using HOV-3 lanes.

    While federal transportation officials say they are heartened by the early results, some highway users beg to differ. The American Trucking Associations reject congestion pricing as an unnecessary toll. The American Automobile Association, which says the approach amounts to double-billing motorists for roads already paid for by taxes, reported that 56 percent of Washington area motorists surveyed earlier this year were opposed to allowing solo drivers into car-pool lanes for a fee.

    Michael Replogle, federal transportation director of the Environmental Defense Fund and a vocal supporter of congestion pricing, said the program must be designed to ensure that it's both fair and ecologically beneficial. "Both for the environment and equity," he said, "HOT lanes can cut both ways."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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