State wants to add interstate toll lanes

Proposal targets beltways, I-95, I-270 with charges based on time, congestion

May 04, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration is endorsing a new way to get traffic moving on some of Maryland's most congested highways - creating toll lanes that would offer drivers in a hurry a less- traveled roadway while raising money for road-widening projects to make life easier for all motorists.

Officials plan to announce today that they will pursue building toll lanes with prices that vary based on the time of day or congestion level on the Baltimore and Capital beltways plus Interstate 270 and Interstate 95. The tolls could be in place on I-95 north of Baltimore within six years.

"I'm convinced it will work because everybody's time has value," said state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "People will pay because they know what their time is worth and they want to avoid the pain of traffic congestion."

The tolls would not come overnight. First, the state would widen the highways in question by selling bonds on the promise they would be paid back with future toll revenue. For instance, a four-lane section of highway would be widened to five lanes. The new lane plus one existing lane would then become toll, and the three remaining lanes would be free.

Officials don't know how many lanes on each road would be toll, what prices would be set, or how the lanes would be separated from the free lanes.

But they are sure of this: There would be no toll booths. The tolls would be collected electronically, at highway speeds. Drivers could set up accounts, like E-Z Pass, from which tolls could be deducted. Or cameras would photograph license plates, and the state would mail out bills.

Maryland officials traveled recently to Southern California to see how toll lanes work there. State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen said the lanes are separated by Jersey barriers or plastic pylons, with gaps in areas where people can weave between the free and toll lanes.

In California

California has several pricing alternatives. On State Road 91 in Orange County, the cost on a 10-mile toll segment ranges from $1 in off-peak hours to $6.25 late on a Friday afternoon. Another model is used on I-15 in San Diego, where tolls change based on congestion in free lanes. The toll for the eight-mile segment usually ranges from 50 cents to $4, but can reach as high as $8 during severe congestion.

The decision to develop toll lanes here marks a policy reversal from the previous administration. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening rejected toll lanes in 2001, saying it would be "unfair to link an easier commute with a person's ability to pay."

Opponents have derided such lanes as "Lexus lanes" for the well-heeled, but Maryland officials said their focus groups found broad support for the idea. They said the lanes are appealing to parents rushing to day care and self-employed workers hurrying to their next job, among others.

"The people who use toll lanes do so when it's very important for them to be someplace on time," said Pedersen. "People have to get to child care on time or they face severe penalties. People who are on business - plumbers use toll lanes a lot."

Officials also say all commuters will benefit, even if they can't afford to drive in the toll lanes. Because the tolls would pay back bonds used to widen the highways, the new lanes - even if toll - would free up existing lanes, they said. The expansions would not be possible otherwise.

"These are mega-projects costing in the billions of dollars," Flanagan said. "But they are desperately needed. People today are sitting in ever-increasing congestion. They are wasting time, wasting money and being exposed to traffic hazards due to hyper-congestion."

It is expected that tolls would help pay for adding a fifth lane to certain sections of the Baltimore and Washington beltways that are four lanes in each direction. In that scenario, two lanes in each direction would be toll, and three would remain free.

The lanes are not a done deal. They must still survive the public hearing process and review by federal environmental and transportation agencies. But there is clearly momentum for the idea among state officials, whose dreams of expanded highways have been tempered by tight budgets.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has committed to breaking ground by Election Day 2006 on the $2 billion Intercounty Connector highway in Montgomery County. He also supports new transit projects in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

But there is a growing call from commuters stuck on the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore Beltway and I-270 for more immediate relief. Toll lanes would provide the money for those roads to be expanded years before federal money would be available.

The toll lanes would most likely come first on the 10-mile section of I-95 between the Baltimore City/Baltimore County line and White Marsh. The state plans to expand that section from the current four lanes in each direction to six. Work is scheduled to begin in 2006, with completion set for 2010.

$620 million project

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