A slimmer 51 percent majority of Marylanders support Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) plan to add express toll lanes to Interstate 270 and the state’s part of the Capital Beltway, according to the poll, conducted earlier this month. Support drops to a combined 45 percent in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where the highways are located.
That’s a drop from 55 percent of residents in both counties who supported the toll lanes in a Post-Schar School poll in May. However, it is higher than in a 2018 Post-U. Md. poll that found a combined 41 percent of registered voters in Montgomery and Prince George’s supported express toll lanes. The 2018 poll question did not specify that the highways’ existing lanes would remain free.
The latest poll, conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, finds support for another Chesapeake Bay crossing spans party lines. A 58 percent majority of registered Republicans favor the idea, as do 53 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents.
Support for adding a third span to the Bay Bridge ranges from 52 percent in Baltimore city and county combined, 55 percent in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, 63 percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties together, and 55 percent among residents in other parts of the state.
“It’s all about infrastructure — that’s something that seems to be neglected around the country today,” said Jeff Davis, 63, a retired mail carrier who lives in Upper Marlboro.
In addition to an expanded Bay Bridge and toll lanes, Davis said, he’d like to see better mass transit options to reduce traffic.
“It’s all about moving people and commerce,” Davis said. “We spend so much time in traffic around here. I think we need a comprehensive transportation system.”
Overall, Marylanders rank transportation as one of the state’s less pressing problems, with 10 percent citing road and transit issues as their chief concern. That is about even with those who consider taxes and affordable housing as the top issue and below those who name crime (22 percent) and public education (20 percent).
In follow-up interviews, respondents had plenty of opinions about how the state should alleviate traffic congestion, which studies have shown is some of the worst in the country.
Some said massive delays related to the recent start of a two-year deck rehabilitation project on the Bay Bridge’s westbound span have highlighted the need for an additional crossing. A spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge, also said recently that the eastbound span will need lane closures for similar work within the next five to 10 years.
Deirdre Harash, 53, of Stevensville, said she’s “100 percent” for building an additional span. She said she lives near the bridge’s eastern end in Queen Anne’s County and uses it several times a week when she travels to shop and visit family. Her husband crosses it daily to commute to Bowie.
“The volume of traffic that uses the bridge on a daily basis has just grown tremendously over the last 20 years,” said Harash, a patient service coordinator for a cardiology practice in Stevensville.
Harash said the state needs to help local roads that get jammed during bridge backups, which she said have become a “nightmare” since the repairs started in late September. Her husband’s 40-minute commute can take 1½ hours, she said, and bridge-bound traffic using local roads to circumvent Route 50 has increased “20-fold.”
“Another bridge needs to be built,” Harash said. “There’s no way around it.”
The state is conducting a $5 million federally required study to assess the potential environmental effects of building a third span. It would augment the original two-lane span, built in 1952, that carries eastbound traffic and the three-lane westbound span that opened in 1973. Both are about four miles long.
State officials haven’t said how much a new crossing would cost or how the state would pay for it. However, a top state official told the Baltimore Sun in 2018 that it could cost up to $10 billion. The poll did not ask whether Marylanders would be willing to pay higher tolls or taxes to fund a bridge expansion but instead whether they would support the project when “considering state government budget priorities.”
Douglas Boline, 61, a federal worker who lives in Annapolis, said there’s “not enough bridge” to meet the cross-bay traffic demand.
“I don’t care where it goes,” said Boline, who sees the backups on the western shore. “I just want more bridge.”
Some residents say an additional span shouldn’t come before other state needs.
Vinay Sharma, 28, a lawyer who lives in Columbia, said he recently got stuck in a two-hour bridge backup while heading home from a weekend wedding in Cambridge. He said he appreciates that some motorists rely on it more regularly to commute, but he believes the state should first address more-pressing issues, such as improving public education and reducing crime in Baltimore.
“To me, traffic on the Bay Bridge is part of life,” said Sharma, who grew up in Montgomery County. “You plan for it, you deal with it, and then you enjoy Ocean City or wherever you’re going.”
It’s unclear why support for Hogan’s plan to add toll lanes to I-270 and the Beltway dropped compared to the May poll.
The proposal has come under criticism from environmental groups and leaders in Montgomery and Prince George’s, who say widening the Beltway east of I-270 would destroy homes and environmentally sensitive parkland while doing too little to encourage mass transit use.
Support for the toll lane plan varies according to income levels. Nearly 6 in 10 residents with a household income of $100,000 or more favor the lanes. But support falls to half for those making $50,000 to $100,000 and to about 4 in 10 for those earning less than $50,000.
Boline, of Annapolis, said he supports adding toll lanes to I-270 as long as they reach Frederick and eventually beyond to Hagerstown. Having lived in Damascus, he said, he knows that upper I-270 is “a mess.” He said he’s fine with the state charging tolls because motorists would have the option of not using the toll lanes.
“If that’s what you need to build the lanes, then fine,” Boline said. “They need it.”
Others said they were concerned that many motorists would be priced out, especially if the Maryland tolls reached $30 to $40 and more, as they have at peak times on express lanes in Northern Virginia.
Lisa Tompkins-Brown, who lives in Silver Spring, said she’s “very much against” toll lanes in Maryland. They might be handy for her commute to Tysons, she said, but any toll above $5 would be too expensive.
“I worry about people who have lower or more moderate incomes,” said Tompkins-Brown, 50, a health strategist. “They’d still be stuck in traffic while those who are more affluent can pay the tolls. It just increases the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”
Idette Brumbaugh, 53, a registered nurse who lives in Damascus, said she’s concerned about the economic fairness of express toll lanes but believes motorists need an alternative to sitting in traffic.
“I like convenience,” Brumbaugh said, “and I’m willing to pay for convenience.”
The poll was conducted by phone Oct. 9-14 among a random sample of 860 Maryland residents. The overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.