State postpones meetings on proposal for toll lanes

Legislators, AAA raise concerns about fairness

January 24, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A pilot project to install toll lanes on some of the state's most congested highways has stirred such concern that state officials have indefinitely postponed a round of public meetings on the issue that was set to begin tonight.

In a report to the General Assembly in November, officials outlined a plan to test "variable pricing" as a tool to reduce traffic at three locations: Interstate 270 from the Capital Beltway to Interstate 70, U.S. 50 from the Capital Beltway to U.S. 301, and at the Bay Bridge.

The tolls could apply to solo drivers who want to use existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes. They also could be imposed at peak travel times to encourage motorists to drive during off-peak hours. Preliminary findings of the report suggest that variable pricing could produce significant shifts in travel patterns.

But several legislators and the Mid-Atlantic AAA are staunchly against the idea.

"It sets apart the rich from the poor," said Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat. "If you have the money, you can move through quickly. It's downright un-American."

Myra Wieman of AAA's Baltimore office shared similar concerns.

"Why should you have to pay more to ride freely on roads you've already paid for?" she said. "We are totally against it in the manner in which they want to implement it."

Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration, said similar reactions helped convince state officials that more communication is needed to explain their goals. In the report to the legislature, they noted that public acceptance is critical if the toll lanes are to be successful, as they have been in several states, including California, Florida and Texas.

If approved, the test project would not go forward for at least two years, officials said.

"Some people love the idea," Edgar said. "But there is a perception that these lanes would be more for affluent drivers. We want to be sure it's priced fairly and is an option for most drivers."

In some circles, the toll lanes are derisively called "Lexus Lanes."

"We would not do it if that's what it would turn out to be," Edgar said.

She said the cost of using the lanes probably would be $3 to $4. Several toll collection methods are being considered, including conventional tollbooths, permits that would be purchased and displayed, an electronic system that would read a transponder installed in the car or a video camera that would identify license plates and bill the user.

Edgar said more information is being gathered about the success of the lanes in other states. The meetings probably will be rescheduled in the summer, she said.

Some legislators say the idea is worth serious consideration. Officials from the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority began the study at the request of the General Assembly.

"People are sitting paralyzed in congestion in the Washington area and increasingly around the state," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat who is chairman of a transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. "Obviously, toll roads are not the first choice for traffic management, but it's definitely something that should be studied."

The three locations being considered for the pilot project are among 10 highways under study for possible tolls or toll adjustments, officials said. Others include I-95 between Baltimore and Washington; I-95 north between the Fort McHenry Tunnel and Delaware; Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels; Key Bridge; the Maryland section of the Capital Beltway; and Route 210 between the Capital Beltway and Route 228.

Dembrow said he is prepared to introduce legislation that would require approval by the General Assembly for new toll lanes.

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