MARYLANDERS STUNNED by rush-hour traffic on the Capital Beltway, brace yourselves: Your commute is on track to get much, much worse. Roughly 30,000 more vehicles will be using Maryland’s portion of the highway each day by 2040, on top of the current 253,000, meaning cars and trucks will creep along at an average speed of 14 mph between Bethesda and College Park — a 10-mile segment that will take 43 minutes.
That’s part of the impetus for a bold plan Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has advanced that would add up to four toll lanes to the Beltway and Interstate 270. (Existing lanes would remain free.) The cost, upward of $9 billion, would be borne by a private firm, selected by the state, which would design, build, operate and maintain the toll lanes, in return for a chunk of the revenue. Depending on its design and scope, the project, which would set variable tolls on the new lanes depending on congestion, would keep traffic flowing at 45 mph in the regular lanes and 60 mph in the toll lanes.
Yes, the new lanes would have to be wedged into the Beltway’s narrow corridor in Maryland, meaning existing homes and businesses would be affected. Along the 20-mile span between the George Washington Parkway, on Virginia’s side of the Potomac, and College Park, as many as 34 homes and four businesses could fall victim to the construction, and hundreds more homes could lose all or parts of their backyards, temporarily during construction or permanently to sound barriers.
That’s the stark trade-off: displacement, or inconvenience and a diminished quality of life for some homeowners in return for a massive improvement — in time saved and stress reduced — for hundreds of thousands of daily commuters. On that cold calculation, Mr. Hogan’s plan makes sense.
Critics have attacked it as a boon mainly to the rich who can afford the new “Lexus lanes”; as a sinister undertaking that will encourage more driving; and as a high-handed state project running roughshod over localities. Citing Virginia, where private partners have successfully built dozens of miles of toll lanes in the suburbs, they cite stratospheric prices imposed on solo drivers on Virginia’s Interstate 66 — forgetting that those drivers were completely banned from that road during rush hour before tolling was introduced two years ago. They insist Maryland should focus on transit improvements, ignoring the reality that car usage nationally is expanding at roughly twice the rate of population growth. (Think of Uber, Lyft and the advent self-driving cars.)
The D.C. region’s population is set to grow by 1.5 million people by 2045 — it is folly to believe the existing, massively congested road system will suffice. New roads don’t induce population growth; they accommodate it, and sustain the robust economy that attracted all those new people. The alternative is stagnation and job loss.