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Poll: 61 percent of D.C.-area residents favor plan to add toll lanes to Beltway, I-270

A clear majority of Washington-area residents favor adding express toll lanes to Interstate 270 and Maryland’s part of the Capital Beltway, a centerpiece of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s traffic relief plans, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.

But support is uneven in the Maryland suburbs, and most residents regionwide say they are concerned about tolls being too expensive, the lanes failing to reduce traffic and nearby homes being destroyed by wider highways.

Regionwide, 61 percent of residents endorse Hogan’s (R) proposal to add express lanes with adjustable tolls to the Beltway and I-270 while keeping the existing lanes free. That level of support holds in Montgomery County, despite vocal opposition from many county leaders. However, it drops to 48 percent in Prince George’s County, where about 8 in 10 residents are worried the toll lanes would be too costly to use.

Large majorities, particularly in Maryland, say they’re concerned about several aspects of the proposal. A 73 percent majority regionwide — and 80 percent in the Maryland suburbs — are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that express toll lanes would require destroying homes. About 7 in 10 regionwide are concerned the toll lanes would be too expensive and fail to reduce congestion.

In an interview, Joyce Thomas of Silver Spring said she believes toll lanes would provide a good option for people in a hurry or who can pay to bypass backups from crashes. The Beltway and I-270 spur, she said, are a “nightmare.”

“I don’t have a problem using tolls to make some lanes more passable,” Thomas said, “because right now, nothing is passable.”

But she said she’s also “very concerned” about whether young people like her granddaughter would be able to afford the tolls and how many homes and businesses would be destroyed to build the lanes.

Read the full poll results

“One issue in the metropolitan Washington area is housing,” said Thomas, 77, an executive director of a nonprofit agency that serves abused and neglected children. “Most of the people close to existing freeways are not in the most expensive homes, so we’re talking about eliminating homes for a group already struggling with housing.”

Paige Deloach, 22, of Bowie said she also supports toll lanes on the Beltway and I-270. But she, too, is concerned about the potential for “super high” tolls that she says would defeat the purpose if they’re too expensive for many motorists to use. She’s also worried about nearby homes — up to 34 that the Maryland State Highway Administration has said might be destroyed along a wider Beltway and up to another 1,500 properties that could lose portions of backyards and other land.

“I think it’s important to think through all that because we need to decide if it’s worth it,” said Deloach, a digital engagement specialist for a nonprofit group. “Is there a way we can do this without taking people’s homes? If not, that’s a serious thing.”

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Support for adding express toll lanes, with some reservations, comes as residents rank the need to improve roads and reduce traffic congestion at the top of transportation priorities they would like Washington-area leaders to focus on. The poll finds 32 percent saying leaders should focus on “improving the condition of roads” and 28 percent on “reducing traffic on roads.” Improving Metrorail ranks third at 20 percent, and 4 percent apiece say leaders should focus on improving bus service, making it easier to bike places, and making it easier to walk places.

The vast majority of Washington-area residents — 78 percent — say they commute by car, with most of those driving alone.

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The Post-Schar School poll finds Washington-area residents have mixed feelings about two other road proposals — rebuilding and expanding the American Legion Bridge and building another Potomac River crossing upriver from the bridge. Fewer than half of area residents say each proposal is “extremely” or “very” important considering local budget priorities.

Regionwide, 46 percent say expanding the American Legion Bridge on the western side of the Beltway between Virginia and Maryland would be “extremely” or “very” important, while 49 percent say it’s “somewhat” or not at all important.

Stephen S. Fuller, an economist and professor at George Mason University, said he was surprised at the relatively low support for expanding the bridge. He said he expected motorists would be “clamoring” for improvements after a fuel tanker overturned near the bridge in March and shut down the inner loop of the Beltway in Virginia for 12 hours.

Emma Carey, 18, of Loudoun County said she uses the American Legion Bridge “once in a while” and doesn’t see a need to expand it.

“I know traffic is bad there, but traffic is bad everywhere,” Carey said.

But Heather Kline, 40, of Alexandria said it’s “very important” to relieve the bridge bottleneck that she saw daily on her previous commute to Frederick, Md. While she traveled against rush-hour traffic, Kline said, she always saw backups at the bridge going the opposite direction and often sat in them in the evenings.

“We’re constantly battling for the worst traffic in the country,” said Kline, who works in new-home-construction sales. “If we don’t increase lanes and options for people’s commutes, then we’ll never get better. We’ll have more people and no improvement in our infrastructure.”

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Fuller said studies have shown that relieving the choke point at the American Legion Bridge would have “enormous benefit” regionwide, including across the Beltway and Interstate 95.

The problem, he said, is that widening the bridge without also expanding Maryland’s side of the Beltway, as Virginia recently announced it will do, would simply move the bottleneck over the bridge and into Maryland.

“It has to go as a package,” Fuller said, “or people will get across the bridge and have nowhere to go.”

D.C.-area residents have even less enthusiasm for building another crossing upstream between Sterling in Virginia and Poolesville in Maryland — something 40 percent say is “extremely” or “very” important; 54 percent say it is “somewhat” or not at all important.

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Kline, of Alexandria, said another bridge should be “somewhat” important to area leaders. While Loudoun is among the fastest growing counties in the United States, other areas closer in, near the American Legion Bridge and I-270, are already “severely struggling and overcrowded,” she said.

Aside from their support for express toll lanes on I-270 and the Beltway, area residents lean against the increased usage of adjustable-rate tolls in general, which become more expensive when traffic is heavy. Some 43 percent support the increasing usage of such tolls, while 53 percent are opposed.

The question of toll lanes — and how much the tolls might cost — sparks some strong reactions.

Tom Brunetti, 37, of Fairfax County said he’s against adding toll lanes in Maryland because he believes the toll lanes in Northern Virginia are unaffordable to most motorists.

“It’s just going to frustrate people and take money out of their pockets,” said Brunetti, a federal worker.

He said the Beltway and other highways would be less congested if they were redesigned with entrances and exits farther apart, preventing the right lanes from bogging down.

Fuller said many residents in Maryland might not realize that Virginia’s express toll lanes have reduced congestion in the free lanes because of vehicles moving into the toll lanes.

“I don’t know if they understand that’s the design purpose, for the benefits to go to all users and not just to the people who pay,” Fuller said.

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The 55 percent support for express toll lanes in suburban Maryland overall is higher than it was in a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last fall, in which 41 percent of registered voters living in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties combined supported adding adjustable-rate toll lanes to the state’s busiest highways and 54 percent opposed it. The new survey’s question specifies I-495 and I-270 as the affected highways and includes the provision that existing lanes would remain free. The latest survey includes all adult residents, not only registered voters.

Hogan’s proposal garners 59 percent support in Washington and 67 percent support in Northern Virginia.

Regionwide, there also is less support for the toll lanes among African American and Hispanic residents — but still over half in favor — compared with nearly 7 in 10 white residents endorsing the idea.

Support also varies by income. Three out of four Washington-area residents from households earning more than $200,000 favor the toll lane plan, but support drops to 59 percent among households earning less than $100,000.

Glenn J. Hall Sr., 62, a retired postal worker who lives in Lanham, said too many people are already struggling to pay for gas.

“They want to charge people money, people trying to go to work?” Hall said. “No. No tolls. . . . People don’t have the money.”

Jason Small, 46, said he’s also worried about asking motorists to pay tolls in an area with a high cost of living.

“I kind of think express toll lanes can be elitist,” Small said one recent evening, as he drove home to Takoma Park from his job as town administrator of Capitol Heights. “You’re basically saying if you have enough money, you get to drive faster. That’s not American.”

The Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone April 25 to May 2 among a random sample of 1,507 adult residents of the Washington area, with 75 percent of interviews conducted on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Results from the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.