Give toll lanes a try

July 28, 2004|By Peter Samuel

THE LAST time Maryland highway planners floated the idea of express toll lanes - on Interstate 270 and Route 50 - it was met with a storm of demagogic criticism highlighted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decrying them as sprawl makers and "Lexus lanes" and canceling a study of the idea.

But little opposition was expressed this spring after the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. unveiled its proposals for installing express toll lanes, or ETLs, along the busiest Maryland highways, which included the state's two beltways and Interstate 95.

Of course, silence doesn't mean approval; many legislators and other officials are no doubt reserving judgment and allowing the idea to be fleshed out before committing themselves.

ETLs are one of the few interesting, new ideas for how to combat highway congestion. They are best envisaged as mini-toll roads that allow pressed-for-time motorists to pay a toll electronically and bypass the more congested main lanes. To keep traffic moving, the toll would increase with congestion, thus using pricing to discourage motorists from overwhelming the ETLs.

The rationale for ETLs is that Maryland can't build its way out of traffic congestion with traditional gas-tax-funded roads. There isn't the money, and at zero price, the traffic will always overwhelm the available road space in peak hours. Maryland also can't build its way out of congestion with fanciful new commuter rail lines because those hyper-expensive projects don't attract enough people to make a difference.

The state can't prevent roadway congestion, but it can provide motorists a premium service. That way, people can confidently make trips for which it is especially important to be punctual. When driving to the airport, to a job interview or to pick up their children from day care, people of all income groups will know they can arrive in time - if they pay the price.

Tolled express lanes have been tried on a smaller scale elsewhere in the United States with very good results.

California pioneered the idea with 10 miles of express lanes (built with private financing) on State Route 91 in Orange County and also with the so-called HOT lanes on Interstate 15 in San Diego. Texas has used the idea on a smaller scale on two freeways in Houston.

Several places have successfully used varying toll rates to manage traffic flow. In New York, the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels underneath it use varying tolls.

On Route 91's Express Lanes, variable tolling eliminates stop-and-go traffic: 1,600 to 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour move along the road at an average speed of 65 mph, compared with 1,200 vehicles at an average 25 mph in the free lanes in peak hours. Keeping traffic moving makes for a far more efficient and safer roadway experience.

But what of the criticism that ETLs are just Lexus lanes for the rich? Research on the California lanes shows all income classes use and benefit from them. Usage varies greatly, but few drivers use the lanes all the time and a majority of people use them several times a month when they are really pressed for time and can't be late.

There has also been little criticism of the proposal to find some of the pavement for the ETLs by doing away with High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-270 and building ETLs on roadways where HOV lanes were planned.

It appears people realize the ETLs still provide an incentive to carpool because drivers and passengers can split the toll, unlike solo drivers. Besides, HOV lanes have hardly been an obvious success in promoting carpooling; drivers regularly flout the occupancy requirement on I-270. Even with the violators, Maryland's HOV lanes operate well below capacity, which is annoying to law-abiding motorists in congested lanes and extremely wasteful of scarce road capacity. ETLs promise to use pavement much more efficiently.

We know the ETL idea can work. Whether it makes sense on Maryland's highways will depend on such mundane issues as motorists' willingness to pay for time savings, the workability of entry and exit points, barrier separation and enforcement. State officials deserve credit for their willingness to study the details of a smart idea.

Peter Samuel, who lives in Frederick, is editor of

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