Tolls may help fund Beltway expansion

Widening parts of I-695 would cost $800 million, highway official says

November 15, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The state wants to give relief to motorists stuck in traffic on the busiest parts of the Baltimore Beltway, but drivers may end up paying part of the bill through special toll lanes, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday at the department's annual meeting with Baltimore County officials.

Widening the Beltway to eight lanes between Interstate 95 and Security Boulevard in the southwest and between Interstate 83 and Interstate 95 in the northeast is the state's top transportation priority in the region, said Neil J. Pederson, Maryland Highway Administration administrator.

But, Pederson said, such a project would be extremely expensive - about $800 million. The only way the state could pay for it in the near future would be through nonconventional means, such as assessing variable rate tolls for the use of some lanes, a move officials say would also combat congestion.

"We do not have a healthy highway system," Flanagan said. "It's not as bad here as it is in the Washington region, but I realize that's cold comfort to those sitting on the Beltway."

The state has also floated the pay-for-use lanes as a way to fund the Inter-County Connector, a proposed six-lane, 18-mile road linking Interstate 270 and I-95 that is Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top transportation priority.

"We believe this alternative will provide an extraordinary and unprecedented level of service in the long run," said Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Secretary Thomas L. Osborne. "Variably priced lanes will bring extraordinary convenience and choice to motorists."

Flanagan confirmed that, for the second year in a row, the state will not fund new projects in Baltimore County. However, transportation officials updated the county on construction projects under way.

Reconstruction of the Beltway interchange at Liberty Road and the addition of a southbound lane from Frederick Road to I-95 will be completed in the summer and fall of next year, respectively, Pederson said.

Reconstruction of the York Road bridge and the bridges over the Beltway near the I-83 interchange are due for completion in the fall of 2005.

The state's other major transportation project in the county, extending Route 43 from its terminus in White Marsh to Eastern Avenue, appears likely to be finished before the scheduled fall 2006 completion date, Pederson said.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. praised the state for its work on the Route 43 extension, which he called a vital economic development project for the county, and for the other projects. But he said the need for new projects is growing dire.

"Each year our list of projects to thank the state for grows shorter and shorter, but the county's list of needs grows longer and longer," Smith said.

The executive pushed for an interchange at Dolfield Boulevard and Interstate 795 and for a center turn lane on York Road between Seminary Avenue and Ridgely Road, among other projects.

He added that the state needs to address the disparate funding for mass transit in the Baltimore and Washington regions. Smith urged the state to move forward with planning and engineering for a new rail line between Woodlawn and Fells Point, the first new line advocated by the Baltimore Region Transit Plan.

Flanagan said the state is working on the initial steps needed to get federal funding for the Red Line, as the Woodlawn to Fells Point route is known. However, he said that is a very long-term project.

Henry M. Kay, director of the Maryland Transit Administration's Office of Planning, said that groundbreaking on the Red Line is, at best, five years away.

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