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Opinion No one welcomes tolls on Maryland highways, but the alternative would be worse

Interstate-495 near Tysons Corner, Va., part of D.C.'s Beltway. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

There’s no mystery about what the opponents will say next about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s highway expansion plan, which would add miles of toll lanes to some of the state’s busiest highways: the Beltway and Interstate-270 just north of D.C. They’ll point to the just-approved toll lane prices, which might soar to $45 during an epic traffic jam for the 12-mile trip from the Virginia side of the American Legion Bridge to Interstate-370 in Rockville.

Here’s what they won’t mention: No one would be forced to pay a dime to drive that route since the existing lanes would remain free. Drivers with two or more passengers would be able to use the toll lanes free of charge.

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Oh, and here’s the big one: If those suburban toll lanes are not built — not just the first phase segments but along the entire length of the Beltway and farther north on I-270 — it’s a sure bet that today’s terrible traffic will become tomorrow’s mind-bending gridlock.

For years, Virginia has plugged away at expanding its most congested suburban arterials, building toll lanes whose prices fluctuate depending on traffic and demand. Meanwhile, Maryland has been inert. Mr. Hogan, a Republican, sensibly wants to change that by constructing a toll lane network that would mirror the one nearing completion across the Potomac.

He has run into opposition owing partly to Democratic elected officials pandering to NIMBY sentiment among their constituents. Those politicians have focused on a few dozen homes that would be near or in the path of the proposed toll lanes rather than the potentially immense regional benefit those lanes would confer. Virginia’s network is living proof that tens of thousands of daily commuters save time — not only by using the new lanes but also on the regular lanes, for which the toll lanes act as an escape valve for those willing to pay a premium to avoid traffic.

It’s undeniable that adding new highway capacity is less environmentally friendly than building additional transit. But many of the same suburban politicians and residents who point to the toll lanes’ environmental impact also opposed Mr. Hogan’s Purple Line light-rail transit project, which arches through a procession of older Maryland suburbs just inside the Beltway.

The truth is, the Washington region is facing a population boom over the next quarter-century that includes a projected 400,000 new residents and 200,000 new jobs in the Maryland suburbs. Without major new investments in both highways and transit, growth will overwhelm existing infrastructure, and the upshot will be daily misery for everyone.

Mr. Hogan was already forced to pare back his toll road plan to accommodate local opposition. That was followed by a state report suggesting that the downsized project — covering just segments of the Beltway and I-270 — wouldn’t do much for evening rush-hour traffic by 2045. Opponents seized on the report as proof the plan isn’t worth it. In fact, it should serve as a warning: Without a more farsighted project that would add capacity to Maryland’s full length of the Beltway and I-270 to Frederick, everyone will suffer.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).