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Virginia built 86 miles of express lanes. Will Maryland follow?

The traffic relief plan in Maryland, which includes an expansion of the American Legion Bridge and toll lanes, is being re-evaluated by a new administration

Traffic builds on the American Legion Bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland over the Potomac River in December. The bridge is one of the worst rush-hour traffic bottlenecks in the D.C. region and will pose challenges for Maryland to replace and expand it. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The drive on Virginia’s northern stretch of the Capital Beltway can be painful. Approaching the chronically congested Potomac River crossing, drivers meet a construction zone with shoulder barriers, overnight lane closures and the cutting of trees to make way for new highway lanes and ramps.

The temporary work is advancing a 2.5-mile extension of the 495 Express Lanes, a widening project that will bring the state’s growing network of high occupancy toll lanes to the foot of the American Legion Bridge. Those lanes, set to open in 2025, are planned to connect to an expanded bridge and a toll system in Maryland, providing congestion relief at one of the biggest traffic chokepoints in the Washington region.

But unlike in Virginia, Maryland isn’t racing to build on its side of the highway. Come 2025, travelers will likely face a nightmarish scenario in which six lanes of northbound traffic merge into four through-lanes at the bridge.

“You’ve got weaving and merging, and it gets very ugly,” said Wes Guckert, president of the Baltimore-based consulting firm the Traffic Group, agreeing with traffic experts who say identical highway capacities on both sides of the river would bring a smoother commute.

It could be years before that happens. Former governor Larry Hogan’s (R) traffic relief proposal has been stuck in the planning phases, its fate uncertain as Gov. Wes Moore (D) reexamines a plan that has divided county and state transportation officials.

Maryland’s delayed action shines a light on a fundamental difference in transportation policy between Virginia and Maryland in a region that’s home to some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion. Under Democratic and Republican administrations, Virginia has pushed multibillion-dollar projects to remake highways with variable tolling using partnerships with private investors. Maryland, meanwhile, is split on how to proceed as new leadership takes power in Annapolis, resisting toll lanes while adding no significant additions to highway capacity in a decade.

The plan Hogan proposed in 2017 was modeled on Northern Virginia’s system, aiming to add four toll lanes — two in each direction — to the length of Interstate 270 and Maryland’s portion of the Capital Beltway. The plan shrank amid opposition in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where officials say toll lanes would primarily benefit the wealthy and harm the environment.

In November, Maryland transportation officials announced they would not seek a 50-year contract to expand I-270 south of Interstate 370 and the western part of the Beltway with toll lanes until the spring, granting a private team of investors more time to prepare a proposal and leaving the fate of the project in the hands of the Moore administration.

Here is Virginia’s plan to grow its network of express lanes in 2023

Moore spokesman Carter Elliott said the governor looks forward to “fostering a productive partnership” with Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to deliver “bold transportation proposals,” but offered no other details. He added in a statement that “Governor Moore’s first priority is to review solutions through the lens of equity, sustainability, environmental protection and environmental justice.”

As the proposal stalls, construction on the Maryland side is unlikely to coincide with work in Virginia in the next two years, as was previously expected. Virginia transportation officials said they still expect Maryland to move forward with the expansion plan.

“Maryland’s project is approved. They have their [federal environmental review] documentation. They’re moving forward with their procurement,” said Susan Shaw, megaprojects director at the Virginia Department of Transportation. “We don’t have any indication that they’re not going to build their projects.”

As the American Legion Bridge turns 60, its traffic woes draw scrutiny

Shaw said Virginia’s Beltway plans are independent of whether Maryland proceeds with the expansion of the express lanes and bridge (most of the bridge — like the river beneath it — belongs to Maryland). She said Virginia expects benefits from the additional capacity on its side, but added that those gains would be greater if lanes didn’t stop at the state line.

An express lane system that transcends state lines also would facilitate reliable bus operations between Fairfax and Montgomery counties, she said, which would reduce vehicle traffic.

Virginia state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who chairs the transportation committee, said Maryland’s delays will lead to more frustration for travelers, many of them Marylanders who commute to jobs in Fairfax County. The lack of movement is also delaying plans to address the bottleneck at the American Legion Bridge three years after the two states announced a $1 billion agreement to rebuild and widen the span.

“We need the express lanes, and we need that bridge replaced,” Marsden said. “There’s still people in Maryland who are fighting express lanes — which is so foolish — because they want a rapid bus system, but you can’t have rapid bus if you can’t move buses on the highways.”

Across the river, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said Maryland doesn’t have to follow in Virginia’s footsteps. Elrich said he supports expanding the bridge and the western part of the Beltway, but opposes private financing that would require tolls.

“The express lanes mostly help people who can afford the express lanes,” he said. “They leave plenty of congestion on the roads.”

He said he supports adding capacity to the bridge, ideally without handing highway lanes to a corporate entity for toll collection, and also favors offering more environmentally friendly commuter-rail service and bus rapid transit. County officials are trying to determine the best path forward under such a scenario, he said.

In the past decade, Virginia has built a system of 86 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes on interstates 66, 95, 395 and 495, most through agreements with private toll operators that build the lanes in exchange for collecting tolls.

Construction of similar toll road projects have been on the rise across the country, with the number of miles nearly tripling in the past decade, from about 320 to 954.

Pat Jones, who leads the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents the industry, said jurisdictions across the country are watching Northern Virginia’s experiment to address highway capacity through private-public partnerships.

“Having express lanes on the other side of the river would increase the benefits for the whole region,” he said.

The Virginia lanes collect tolls that vary based on demand. They have also been criticized because rates can reach as high $40 for 10 miles of travel during extreme instances of congestion.

Virginia has defended the system, saying a system that combines free general-purpose lanes and paid lanes helps to move more people and generate funding that is reinvested in transportation. Under the agreements, a share of the revenue is put toward transit and other transportation projects, including the construction of bike lanes and commuter parking lots.

Virginia is slated to open a 10-mile extension of the 95 Express Lanes this year and is studying whether to extend the 495 Express Lanes another 11 miles to the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, a link that would complete the final leg of a tolling system on Virginia’s portion of the Beltway.

A regional system of express lanes has had the support of the business community for years. The Greater Washington Partnership, a group of corporate leaders from Baltimore to Richmond, in 2018 sought a regional consensus on tolling, supporting Hogan’s plan and a more interconnected system to reduce congestion, improve reliability and boost mobility.

While traffic metrics indicate congestion is still a problem in Northern Virginia, experts say highway expansions with managed express lanes have also brought benefits. Drivers can pay for a more reliable ride while reducing congestion in free lanes, and most importantly, they say, the system promotes improved bus service and carpooling. Buses and vehicles with at least three occupants can use toll lanes free.

“I don’t think there’s any question that it is the most sophisticated tolling network in the country,” said Robert Puentes, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Group of corporate heavyweights pushes for regional toll network

But having that system suddenly end at the state line could be confusing for travelers, he said.

Toll operator Transurban, which operates lanes on interstates 495, 395 and 95, said it has seen growth in carpooling and bus trips more than double since 2012, when the 495 Express Lanes debuted. The Australia-based company is part of the team that Maryland selected to build its express lanes.

“Transportation demand and commerce, and frankly commuters, don’t stop at our state lines,” Transurban North America president Pierce Coffee said at a regional forum in November.

Cinzia Cirillo, director of the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland, said research shows adding new lanes does not solve congestion problems, but added that Virginia’s strategy has created infrastructure for reliable transit and revenue to support the infrastructure.

All of this is part of an integrated system of transportation, which is what we should be doing,” she said.

Virginia officials said they have coordinated with Maryland on their design of the project, including taking into account Maryland’s plans for an additional ramp while designing the George Washington Memorial Parkway interchange.

“Once we know more of the timing, and they actually have a design-builder on board, we would work together to make sure that we are coordinated,” Shaw said. “But until we know any more on the timing, we’re moving forward with our piece knowing that the design has been done in a way that will fit and mesh with what their plans are.”