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Group of corporate heavyweights pushes for regional toll network

View of the southbound Interstate 395 HOT lanes near Duke Street in Alexandria on Feb. 12, 2015. This is part of the 95 Express Lanes. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A group of corporate leaders is pushing for a robust, interconnected network of toll lanes from Baltimore to Richmond, saying the region should embrace tolling to improve the reliability of the region’s roadways and reduce congestion while generating a funding stream to pay for transportation infrastructure.

The Greater Washington Partnership has identified principles it says can guide elected and government officials to successfully grow the toll road network.

“We have done tolling separately in Virginia and Maryland, but we really need to do this as a region,” said Joe McAndrew, the group’s director of transportation policy. “We need to be thinking about this to incorporate and benefit the broader transportation system.”

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The group is pushing for regional consensus on tolling at an opportune time, seeking to boost support for a Maryland proposal to add toll lanes to parts of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 and capitalize on growth of tolling across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia, where about 55 miles of express lanes have opened on Interstates 495, 95 and 66 within the past five years.

Maryland’s plan, the group says, offers an opportunity to reduce congestion, improve reliability and boost mobility for commuters. And it would provide connectivity with the Virginia toll network by way of the American Legion and Woodrow Wilson bridges. Virginia is on pace to create a network of 90 miles of HOT lanes by 2022, with the addition of an eight-mile stretch of express lanes on I-395 and 22 miles of toll lanes on I-66 outside the Beltway.

As the network grows in Virginia and Maryland, it should become an integrated system that follows the same principles, said John Porcari, a former deputy U.S. transportation secretary and Maryland transportation chief.

“Is the tolling revenue helping the entire transportation system including public transit? Is it accessible and usable for consumer of all income levels?” said Porcari, who serves on the partnership’s mobility steering committee.

“There has to be a framework to build the connectivity of the region,” he said.

A position paper by the partnership lays out this formula: Tolling should be coordinated regionally to deliver the benefits of greater mobility and reliability, revenue from tolls should be used to improve public transportation, and the investments should benefit not only the tolled facility but the greater transportation system. The region should ensure the toll facilities benefit people of all income levels, suggesting programs such as free tolling accounts to ensure people of lower incomes can access them.

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McAndrew said congestion-priced tolling, such as the system 66 Express Lanes, has proved effective, despite criticism over tolls as high as $47 during the busiest times of the commute. Already data show better commutes along the 10-mile stretch of highway from the Beltway to the District line, he said, pointing to Virginia Department of Transportation reports about more consistent and reliable travel along the corridor.

The system allows carpoolers and bus riders to ride free, while giving solo drivers the choice to pay. The tolls are dynamic — meaning they change according to demand and volume of traffic to maintain an average vehicle speed.

Many drivers and advocates for drivers are skeptical about any proposal that calls for more tolls, especially on existing highways, said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“Most motorists are leery of congestion-priced tolling because people in the region drive because they have to, not because they want to,” Townsend said. The backlash by solo drivers against the rush-hour toll rates on I-66 gives insight into motorists’ concerns that the toll pricing algorithms or regimens would be unfair to them, Townsend said.

“Attitudes are not as hardened if the priced lanes are optional,” he said. “Motorists are troubled by congestion pricing because of equity concerns and its impact on commuters with household incomes under a certain strata.”

A complete network of toll lanes could ease the traffic congestion that is costing the region billions of dollars, McAndrew said. According to the group’s report, one estimate puts the annual cost of congestion for the region at more than $7 billion.

On average, Washington metro area commuters lose $1,834 annually —  the highest in the nation, the report said.

Tolling is one of the tools the partnership is pushing to improve transportation in the region. The group was part of a coalition of business leaders who successfully pushed for dedicated funding for Metro from Virginia, the District and Maryland.

The group’s 21-member board of directors includes prominent chief executives from many of the biggest companies in Virginia, Maryland and the District. It includes Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals; and chief executives Wesley G. Bush of Northrop Grumman, Kevin Plank of Under Armour, David M. Rubenstein (co-executive chairman) of Carlyle Group, Thomas Farrell of Dominion Energy, Richard Fairbank of Capital One, Chris Crane of Exelon and Sheila C. Johnson of Salamander Hotels & Resorts.

The group also is planning to push for the implementation of a common farecard system that can be used on Metro, commuter and intercity rail systems, and other services, as well as a redesign of the regional bus network.