Maryland is racing to catch up with Virginia in tolling its roads, planning not only to modernize old toll facilities but also orchestrating a mammoth network of new toll lanes in its Washington suburbs.
The most tangible expansion in the works is a $1.1 billion extension of the express toll lanes in the Interstate 95 corridor, north of Baltimore, where construction is expected to begin next year. But an even more ambitious plan would add toll lanes on the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495), Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Interstate 295).
The $9 billion project, announced in September, would be the biggest such public-private partnership in the country, and could require years if not decades to build. But Maryland is taking key steps this summer to advance it.
State transportation officials are scheduled to present preliminary construction alternatives for the plan in July , providing the most detail to date of what the project might look like on I-270 and the Beltway. The program would allow the construction of four toll lanes on each of the highways, potentially more than doubling the state’s existing toll network of 124 centerline miles.
Maryland and the federal government recently agreed to evaluate a state takeover of the B-W Parkway, a 29-mile highway owned by the National Park Service. The transfer would allow the state to pursue its plan to add four toll lanes to the roadway between Baltimore and Washington.
“These important traffic relief initiatives will benefit Marylanders,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said recently in announcing plans for the Baltimore toll project. “Our administration remains committed to transforming our state’s transportation infrastructure, and extending the express lanes is another example of our ongoing progress.”
Hogan, who is seeking reelection this year, touts toll lanes as a way to ease traffic congestion and give Maryland commuters the same choices their counterparts in Virginia have. The state has the second-longest commute times in the country, according to the Census Bureau.
State transportation officials say none of the projects eliminates free travel lanes; the toll lanes will be new lanes that they say will effectively pay for themselves with toll revenue. Even so, the projects are a tough sell for transit advocates who say the money would be better spent improving Metro and investing in other transit options. Even drivers frustrated by never-ending traffic congestion have grown weary of hefty tolls.
“Simply adding more free lanes won’t relieve congestion. It just creates more traffic,” said Ben Ross, chairman of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which favors transit and opposes Hogan’s toll plan. “The money can be so much better spent on extending the rail lines.”
Across the Potomac, Virginia has opened 55 miles of express lanes within the past six years, widening the Beltway and Interstate 95 to create toll lanes. The state’s most recent addition — the 66 Express Lanes — has recorded tolls that have topped $47 to travel 10 miles from the Beltway to the District line. Virginia is on track to have 90 miles of express lanes by 2022.
The commonwealth’s strategy, however, centers on high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to allow carpoolers to ride free, encouraging carpooling and transit use. That concept hasn’t been an option in Maryland’s toll program, nor is it a priority.
Maryland officials say they are learning from Virginia’s experiment, which is much further along. The state wants to create a toll program on its side of the Potomac to ensure that commuters who cross over have a seamless experience, Maryland State Highway administrator Greg Slater said.
However, Slater and other state officials declined to describe what that system would look like or whether it would match Virginia’s with HOT lanes and toll revenue being used for transit improvements. An environmental review for the project for Interstates 495 and 95 launched in the spring and is expected to take a couple of years to complete.
“We are looking at all the tools in the toolbox,” Slater said. “There’s probably more unanswered questions than answers at this point in terms of tolling.”
The proposal was caught in scandal this spring when it became public that senior officials used an expedited and unusual process to choose a company to oversee the multibillion-dollar project. One company selected for the project was a former employer of Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn. Hogan later killed the controversial $68.5 million management contract.
The agreement reached last week with the Interior Department to explore giving Maryland control of the B-W Parkway could advance Hogan’s vision to add toll lanes to the roadway that carries about 120,000 commuters daily. The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) would build, operate and maintain the lanes.
As Maryland moves forward with its plans, criticism continues to build. An advocacy group recently listed Hogan’s plan to widen the roadways using public-private partnerships and tolling to pay for them as one of the country’s biggest “boondoggles,” saying that expanding highways always leads to more congestion over time. Critics point to the expansion of I-270 in the early 1990s to address congestion in the corridor.By the late 1990s, the highway, which was widened up to 12 lanes in some stretches, was again dubbed “a rolling parking lot.”
Ross, of the transit coalition, said for example the billion dollars planned to build the 10 miles of express lanes north of Baltimore could be used to launch two-way, all-day MARC service to Frederick. State officials note, however, that the project would be paid for with MDTA funds, with the debt repaid via toll revenue.
When it was first announced last year, the extension of the northbound I-95 express toll lanes was described as a $210 million, one-lane, 7.5-mile project. But the state recently said it plans to invest an additional $890 million to build two lanes instead of one and expand the toll lanes by 10 miles from north of the interchange at MD 43 in Baltimore County to north of MD 24 in Harford County. The $1.1 billion project, to be paid for with toll revenue, includes the reconstruction of two major interchanges and other improvements. It is expected to be completed in 2026.
“We have seen a successful reduction in congestion as a result of the development of the express toll lanes that we have now,” MDTA executive director Kevin C. Reigrut said.
The MDTA also is pursuing various programs to promote its toll facilities, including eliminating the fee to get an E-ZPass transponder. The agency also plans to transition to an all-electronic toll system, though the process could take years.
So far, the Intercounty Connector and 95 Express Lanes, the state’s two newest toll roads, have all-electronic payment systems, meaning there are no toll plazas. The system allows the state to charge higher tolls during rush hours. An all-electronic system also would enable the state to implement dynamic tolling for the planned 495 and 270 toll lanes — where rates would change based on demand.
“What we want to do is make sure that our system allows people to make a choice, whether they want to take a certain type of facility or not, or whether they want to take transit or highway,” Slater said. “We just want to be able to continue to develop that system of systems.”