Maryland Tolls Could Rise To Pay For Widening I-270

GETTING THERE

August 10, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Are you ready to pay higher tolls at Maryland toll facilities to widen a highway whose benefits you'll never use and which puts Baltimore at a competitive disadvantage?

It's not out of the question. Ben Ross of the Action Committee for Transit raised that possibility while we were chatting the other day about the proposed $4.6 billion project to widen Interstate 270 by adding two express toll lanes in each direction.

Ross is not exactly unbiased. He doesn't like the proposed project - which has been backed by the Montgomery County Planning Board and some County Council members there - on environmental grounds. But the concern he raises is valid enough that it should prompt elected officials from other parts of the state to ask pointed questions.

Adding toll lanes to I-270 would almost certainly put it within the purview of the Maryland Transportation Authority - thus making the project eligible to be funded in part with bonds backed by revenue from other state toll facilities. But for now, it's taking all the tolls the state can collect to keep up with existing obligations. Any plan for I-270 that includes financing from the authority would likely involve toll increases.

The existing facilities the authority could look to for funds are the Kennedy Highway (Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore), the three Baltimore Harbor crossings, the Bay Bridge, the Hatem Bridge (U.S. 40 at the Susquehanna) and the Nice Bridge (U.S. 301 at the Potomac River).

The last major nontruck toll increase came during the Ehrlich administration in 2003. Money from bonds based on those tolls provide the single biggest source of money to pay for the Inter-County Connector and the express toll lane project on Interstate 95. The harbor crossing tolls went from $1 to $2. The Kennedy Highway and Hatem Bridge went from $4 to $5. The Bay and Nice bridges were exempted.

In that case, there was some logical connection between the tolls that were raised and the projects that were paid for. The I-95 project does add capacity to the corridor where most of the tolls are being paid. The case for the ICC was not as strong, but one could still argue that it benefited all of Central Maryland. Though many would dispute that, it is the argument that prevailed.

The I-270 project is far different. The people who would use the express lanes at peak times are overwhelmingly inhabitants of one corridor far removed from other parts of the state. The chief beneficiaries, residents of upper Montgomery and Frederick counties, can easily go years without seeing an existing Maryland toll facility.

The rest of us aren't so lucky. Residents of the Eastern Shore and Anne Arundel County are disproportionate users of the Bay Bridge. Residents of eastern Baltimore County and Bel Air pay a toll just about every time they drive to BWI. People in Cecil and Harford counties bear the brunt of tolls on I-95. Southern Marylanders and Prince George's County residents depend on the Nice Bridge to travel south.

Why would residents of any of these areas want to pay higher tolls to finance the most expensive transportation project in Maryland history when all it would do is direct the state's growth further out of reach? Maryland needs more jobs in the center of the state - in Laurel, for instance - than in Germantown or Clarksburg, which are more accessible to Leesburg, Va., than to Baltimore or Annapolis or Upper Marlboro or Waldorf.

Jack Cahalan, chief spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, was asked whether increased tolls on the state's other toll facilities could be a source of funding for a widened I-270. His reply:

"What is being studied now is a list of potential highway projects that may literally be decades away, if ever. It is way too early to even speculate about what any financing model could look like decades from now."

Cahalan may be correct that it's too soon for him to speculate, but the rest of us aren't bound by that restriction. And neither are our elected officials.

These financing packages for major highway projects tend to get put together in the backrooms before being presented to the General Assembly as a near-fait accompli. Vigilant legislators from metropolitan Baltimore, the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Prince George's County would be well-advised to put the toll facilities in their backyards off-limits to those who would use them to finance self-serving sprawl.

The rest of Maryland shouldn't begrudge Montgomery its needed projects. Its residents pay a lot of taxes and deserve their Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Both projects are good for Maryland and the bay. But we don't owe Montgomery a $4.6 billion swig of highway hooch before it heads into road-building rehab.

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