Stephen Kiehl on Baltimore Beltway

Transportation reporter answers readers' questions on traffic bottlenecks in area

Sun Q&A

April 27, 2004

Andrew Morris, Finksburg: How is adding toll lanes supposed to relieve traffic? If no one uses the toll lanes, then they will only have three lanes to travel. This is the dumbest idea I have ever heard. Sounds like a try at getting more money.

Kiehl: State officials say that adding new lanes to highways has gotten so expensive that they may not to be able to afford it anymore with traditional revenue sources -- the federal government and state transportation trust fund. But with tolled lanes, they could borrow money to build now against the promise of toll money to come in the future. So the choice really may come down to: four free lanes versus three free lanes and two toll lanes. The state says the latter may be the way to go, and that it would add capacity to the highways.

Diane Broomall, Baltimore: How would free lanes and toll lanes work? How serious are officials about enacting this? How will it be regulated? Draw me a picture of how lanes would be monitored/entered/exited/charged? In what way might car-pooling solve/prevent this measure? How soon will this happen? Will you be able to get in either lane paid or free tolls? What other options are there? A Beltway tax?

Kiehl: Good questions, and we could go on forever with all the possible scenarios. But first, I should make it clear that while the state is studying toll lanes, the idea has not been officially endorsed by state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan or Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But it is being given very serious consideration and a decision could come within a month or two.

As for how it would work, the toll collection would all be electronic. There would be no toll booths. Most likely, there would be entry points to the toll lanes every few miles, and cameras at those entry points would record the license plates of the people entering the lanes. Another possibility is people who often use the toll lanes could get transponders like the E-Z Pass that would deduct the toll cost from their accounts. The toll lanes would probably be separated from the free lanes by a thin barrier.

And when might we see this? If the state adopts this as policy, they would still have to build the lanes to be tolled. For both the Baltimore and Capital beltways, the consideration is to add one new lane to each direction and make that lane and an existing lane toll[s]. So we'd have to wait for the new lanes to be added, and that could be up to 10 years.

Andrea, Dundalk: Your article talks about the money from the toll lanes going to construction on other parts of the Beltway. Where is the money from the recently increased harbor tunnel toll going? What if the new toll lanes become increasingly popular once they are opened and they, too, become congested? Is there any sort of alternative to the toll roads?

Kiehl: Tolls at the Harbor Tunnel (Interstate 895) and Fort McHenry Tunnel (I-95) were raised from $1 each way to $2 last year. The tunnels are operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which is a state agency but receives no state funding. It gets all its money from the tolls. The transportation authority said it had to raise tolls to cover rising costs of maintenance as well as to help pay for a planned widening of I-95 from the city line to White Marsh. The roadway would go from the current four lanes in each direction to six. Construction is projected to begin in 2006, with completion by 2008 at the earliest.

The idea behind the toll lanes is that they wouldn't become congested -- if they did, the people paying to drive in them wouldn't be getting their money's worth! The way this would work is that when the free lanes are absolute gridlock, the cost of the toll lanes would be quite high. The idea being that people will pay more to use toll lanes when the others are stopped, and also that the high price would keep some people out so the lanes wouldn't get congested. Of course, as for what those prices would exactly be is far from certain right now.

John Galloway, Hampstead: Back in 1978 I saw a planning map that had a proposed outer beltway on it. If I recall correctly, it would meet I-83 and York Road somewhere between Hunt Valley and Hereford and meet Md. 140 north of Reisterstown. Is this still being considered as part of a long-range plan for the Baltimore area?

Kiehl: The state highway administrator says in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a plan for an outer beltway. Part of it is already in place -- and it's called Route 100 in Anne Arundel and Howard counties. The plan was for it to go past Route 29 onto Owings Mills and I-83. But every community involved was adamantly opposed, so the plan never got anywhere. Officials say it's been a dead issue for 30 years and couldn't conceivably be done now. Sorry!

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