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Maryland is focusing on adding toll lanes in plan to widen the Beltway and I-270

The state has removed earlier options to expand transit in the corridors.

Traffic flows along interchanges that link I-495 and I-270. The state is narrowing down the options to bring a toll system to both highways. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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As part of its controversial plan to widen the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, Maryland says it intends to focus on the implementation of toll lanes — as many as four on each highway — and abandon earlier considerations of more general-purpose lanes, bus rapid transit and bus-only lanes.

Maryland transportation officials have narrowed the number of possible construction alternatives to seven from an original list of 15 for further study of potential toll operations in the two corridors that suffer some of the worst traffic congestion in the region.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in September 2017 proposed widening the highways to add managed toll lanes through a public-private partnership.

The concept, which is expected to cost between $9 billion and $11 billion for both highways, is undergoing a complex federal review process that will explore a variety of possible improvements before settling on a preferred alternative.

State transportation officials have said the goal is to find the best solution that not only provides some relief for commuters, but also is financially viable. The original set of options unveiled last summer included congestion-priced toll lanes and dedicated bus lanes, as well as spot improvements to the existing road and the conversion of existing HOV lanes to toll lanes on I-270.

Proposal would give counties power to veto Maryland’s plan to toll Beltway, I-270

The state announced this week it is proceeding with a smaller pool of options that focus on a system of managed toll lanes. Moving forward, the decision will be mostly choosing between a high-occupancy toll (HOT) lane system, similar to Virginia’s Express Lanes on interstates 66, 495, and 95, where carpoolers use the lanes free, or express toll lanes, which require all road users to pay. The no-build option also remains, as required in the federal environmental review process.

“HOT Lanes and express toll lanes provide people with a choice for a faster, predictable trip when they need it,” the state said in explaining its decision to favor toll lanes for the corridors. Even though it’s removing the “transit-only” alternative, the state said transit solutions are part of its overall relief plan, but “overall, transit alone would not address the existing and long-term traffic growth.”

Similarly, the state is abandoning the concept to add HOV or general-purpose lanes, saying those options would not support long-term traffic growth either, nor provide a revenue source needed to fund construction of the projects.

“Under the Hogan Administration’s Traffic Relief Plan, all free unrestricted lanes will remain free while new managed lanes will address the crippling congestion in the National Capital Region. These managed lanes are a proven solution in Maryland and across the world in reducing similar serious congestion issues,” Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. said. “The first phase delivers a long-overdue American Legion Bridge and adds new managed lanes on I-495 from the American Legion Bridge to I-95. This first phase was originally linked to the Purple Line in previous studies that recommended providing this complimentary transit and highway network system. The I-495 and I-270 P3 Program will be key to connecting a system of systems by linking into transit with Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County and transit-oriented development projects in Greenbelt, New Carrolton and Branch Avenue in Prince George’s County.”

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

The announcement, posted Wednesday night on the project website, quickly drew criticism from groups opposed to the toll lanes and the highway widening, and from residents worried about the effects on adjacent property.

“The arguments MDOT uses to rule out transit don’t pass the laugh test,” said Ben Ross, chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, which has been advocating more transit in both corridors. “They admit that if they run more trains, people will be able to avoid traffic jams, but then say that’s not good enough because the traffic jams on existing roads will still be there. But adding toll lanes won’t remove congestion from existing roads, either. In fact, for the toll revenue scheme to work, the state needs to make sure the traffic jams continue — because no one will pay tolls if the free lanes are moving at full speed.”

Pete Altman of the citizen group Don’t Widen 270 said the decision to focus on adding toll lanes has residents worried about the project’s ability to stay within the roads’ existing footprints. State officials have said their plan is to keep the roadway improvements within the right of way, but no details have been made available about how that would be accomplished.

“What does this mean for homes and neighborhoods by the highway?” Altman said. “We still don’t know, and by throwing transit under the bus and limiting its focus to adding lanes, Governor Hogan’s administration is bulldozing over public opinion and raising the anxiety and uncertainty that nearby residents are experiencing over the future of our communities.”

Maryland races to catch up with Virginia in toll road projects

Opponents are counting on state lawmakers to put the brakes on Hogan’s plan. Legislators are reviewing several proposals that would delay or derail the construction of toll lanes, including a plan that would essentially give counties the power to veto state toll projects and another that could delay Hogan’s plan by requiring the state to hold off on pre-solicitation of contracting a private partner for the project until the environmental study is completed in 2020. A third bill would prohibit the state from acquiring land for the purpose of a public-private partnership project that includes the addition of toll lanes to the Beltway and I-270.

The Maryland Department of Transportation opposes the legislation. Agency officials say the proposals could “impede progress on projects that aim to provide meaningful congestion relief. Hogan’s plan, the state says, would ease traffic congestion and give drivers more options — and is in line with a regional vision for a robust network of toll roads with pricing based on congestion.

The seven alternatives will move forward for detailed traffic, environmental and financial analyses, officials said. From those, the state will select a smaller pool of options this year to complete a draft of the environmental impact statement before a final option is selected and recommended in 2020. Transportation officials say the narrowed list of alternative were chosen to meet certain criteria, including that the project must be able to pay for itself.