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Poll: Maryland voters narrowly oppose Hogan’s big plan for express toll lanes

Maryland voters said in interviews that they would like to see roads widened to relieve severe congestion, but they don’t want to pay tolls for that relief. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Maryland voters narrowly oppose adding express toll lanes to widen three of the state’s most congested highways, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds, highlighting public skepticism about one of Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature transportation plans.

The centerpiece of the Republican governor’s proposal — a $9 billion project to add four lanes apiece to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — is even opposed by voters in the Washington suburbs, whom the plan is supposed to help. More than half of voters in the D.C. suburbs prefer to invest in public transit rather than building more roads.

The poll finds­­ 44 percent of registered voters statewide favor adding express toll lanes, while 50 percent oppose them. Nearly twice as many strongly oppose the idea as strongly support it, 33 percent to 18 percent.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposes widening the Beltway and I-270 to include 4 toll lanes

In follow-up interviews, even voters who said they would like to see roads widened to relieve severe congestion — which slows traffic to 15 mph or less for several hours each day on some highways — don’t want to pay tolls for that relief. Several said they fear a repeat of Northern Virginia’s experience, where tolls on the nearly year-old 66 Express Lanes have exceeded $45 at times to travel the 10-mile stretch.

Hogan’s proposal to address gridlock in the Washington suburbs would add managed toll lanes through a public-private partnership. Tolls would fluctuate based on traffic — costing more when it is heavier and less when it is lighter — both to ensure traffic remains free-flowing and to encourage commuters to seek other options, such as transit. The existing free lanes would remain.

The plan is undergoing a complex federal review, including a study of whether to transfer the B-W Parkway from federal to state control.

Maryland races to catch up with Virginia in toll road projects.

In a related project, construction is expected to begin next year on a $1.1 billion extension of the express toll lanes in the Interstate 95 corridor north of Baltimore.

The transportation package aims to achieve an ambitious highway expansion without increasing the gas tax or other levies — a condition critical to Hogan, who is seeking reelection and whose opposition to tax hikes is central to his political brand.

The poll finds that in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties together — the two suburbs where most of the lanes would be added — voters oppose the plan by 54 percent to 41 percent. The opposition is concentrated in Prince George’s, which opposes it by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 62 percent to 35 percent. There’s a virtual tie in Montgomery, with support at 47 percent and opposition at 48 percent.

Clifford Harris, 43, an IT consultant in Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s, said he disliked the express toll lanes introduced in Northern Virginia when he commuted for years to work in Tysons.

“I’m just thankful I got out of Virginia in time to beat that debacle,” Harris said, recalling that a toll once hit $43. “Dealing with that mess, I don’t want to see that in Maryland.”

Tentative construction options unveiled for Maryland’s ambitious plan to widen the Beltway and I-270

He said he would be willing to pay higher gas taxes if the money went for a long-term, regionwide plan to improve transportation.

“I don’t think a toll is the answer,” Harris said. “There has to be a better way.”

Teresa Shaffer, 64, a Bethesda schoolteacher, said she could support the plan, but only if the tolls were “reasonable,” such as in a range of $2 or $1.50 during rush hour.

“You would like to see highways widened,” Shaffer said. “It would depend on the amount. . . . I don’t want it to be anything like what’s going on in Virginia.”

Fans of express toll lanes appreciate the convenience. Sarah Strouse, 42, a neonatologist in Pikes­ville in Baltimore County, has frequently used the existing I-95 toll lanes and recently used one in Northern Virginia while taking a child to college.

“I paid a $20 toll because I didn’t want to sit in traffic,” Strouse­ said. “I wouldn’t pay that every day, but in a hurry, we said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ ”

Gov. Larry Hogan leads Democrat Ben Jealous by 20 points, Post-U. Md. poll finds

She said the tolls are fair because people are not required to pay them.

“It’s a toll only on people who are willing to pay it,” Strouse said.

Some opponents say existing taxes ought to cover the cost of new roads and lane widening.

“It’s enough that they’re already taking taxes out when we pay for gasoline, and [that money] should be used for roads,” said Marva Heier, 79, a retiree in Halethorpe in Baltimore County. “Instead, it’s being diverted for other things — buses or trains. . . . Why should we have to pay, after we’ve already paid?”

Support for express toll lanes is highest in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, with 52 percent in support. Somewhat more voters in Baltimore City and Baltimore County oppose the plan than support it, 50 percent to 42 percent. Opinion is nearly divided in the rest of the state.

The proposal draws tepid support from registered Democrats (44 percent) and Republicans­­­­ (47 percent), as well as among liberals (43 percent) and conservatives (45 percent).

Personal finances play a modest role, as support is higher among those who say they are getting ahead financially, 53 percent of whom support the proposal, compared with 40 percent of those who have just enough money to maintain their standard of living or say they are falling behind.

Age appears to be a factor as well, with 53 percent of Maryland voters under 40 supporting express lanes compared with 44 percent of those ages 40 to 64 and 31 percent of seniors 65 and older.

Support splits along racial lines, as well. Opposition is highest among African Americans in the state, with 61 percent opposed to the proposal. Whites are about equally divided.

Here’s a look at who’s using Northern Virginia’s 495 and 95 Express Lanes

Looking at the state’s transportation budget overall, Maryland voters are split over whether to focus on roads or public transit. Prioritizing the expansion and building of roads has the support of 48 percent of voters, while providing more public transportation options has the support of 47 percent.

Opinion has barely budged in the past three years, as similar shares said the same when the same question was asked in a Post-U-Md. poll in October 2015.

However, there are significant differences politically and regionally.

Maryland Republicans are most supportive of expanding and building roads, with 69 percent favoring roads. Smaller majorities of registered Democrats (54 percent) and independents (53 percent) prefer the budget to go to increased public transit.

Support for providing more public transit options is highest among residents of closed-in D.C. suburb Montgomery County, where 59 percent want to prioritize it. Support in nearby Prince George’s County is not as high, at 49 percent.

Think rush-hour, peak-direction tolls on I-66 are bad? How about tolling drivers going both directions?

Farther north, in Baltimore County, voters are split between road expansion and more public transit, while in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, a 54 percent majority prefer expanding roads. Outside the Baltimore and D.C. suburbs, voters prefer the expansion and building of roads to providing more public transit by a 59 percent to 35 percent margin.

There also are divisions based on personal finances. Among Maryland voters who say they’re getting ahead financially, 57 percent say they’d like the state to build more roads, while a 51 percent majority of those who have just enough to maintain their standard of living or who are falling behind support more public transit.

The Post-U-Md. poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 4 through Oct. 7 among a random sample of 870 Maryland residents, including 814 registered voters. The samples from the full survey and of registered voters both have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.