The state is considering converting existing lanes of highways into HOT lanes - allowing drivers to pay for a congestion-free ride - in addition to building new toll lanes, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said this week.
The most serious consideration for High Occupancy Toll lanes is being given to the Baltimore and Washington beltways, which boast some of the worst congestion in the state.
In both cases, the state is looking at building a new lane in each direction and then designating it and another lane for tolls.
In some cases, Flanagan said, the state could not afford to build new lanes without tolling existing, adjacent lanes. Adding a lane in each direction to the Capital Beltway, for instance, would cost more than $2 billion.
"You could never afford to do it unless you had two toll lanes" each way, he said. "It would be a tremendous step forward for Beltway commuters. And doing a similar effort on the Baltimore Beltway looks, on a preliminary basis, like it's worth studying."
Flanagan said the current expansion of the Baltimore Beltway - which is adding a fourth lane in each direction on the west side - would continue as planned without tolls. But, he said, "What you might do is turn around and add an additional lane and make two of the five lanes toll. But you would have to study it to be sure."
His comments, in an interview this week, were intended to clarify remarks made last week by Deputy Transportation Secretary Trent M. Kittleman, who said the state "would never charge drivers to use lanes they've been using for years."
Flanagan said the HOT lanes study is broader than Kittleman had indicated.
The AAA said it opposes toll lanes in most cases, especially if the toll is being imposed on a road or lane that used to be free. AAA spokesman John White said motorists have already paid for existing roads through gas taxes and other fees.
White expressed hope that the state's transportation funding task force, which began meeting recently, would "find more imaginative and effective solutions."
The state study is a departure from the position of the previous administration. Gov. Parris N. Glendening killed a HOT lanes study in 2001, saying it would be "unfair to link an easier commute with a person's ability to pay."
But Flanagan said that by diverting traffic to the new toll lanes, those who remain in the free, general-use lanes would not be any worse off. High-occupancy vehicles would be able to use the HOT lanes without charge, he said.
"Our general concept is we do not want to add to the congestion of people who are either unable or unwilling to pay for travel," Flanagan said.
While environmental groups tend to support HOT lanes as long as they are carved out of existing lanes, they do not support building new lanes. One environmental leader was particularly chagrined at the idea of spending $2 billion to widen the Capital Beltway.
"Adding more lanes to the Beltway is not where we need to be spending our resources right now," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.