Express toll lanes on Interstate 95 (highlighted in orange)… (Photo provided by Maryland…)
What happens is this: Crews, cranes and concrete trucks converge on Interstate 95 for months and sometimes years, and the typical motorist, unhappy about having to drive on the American autobahn at any time — much less when it is being repaired — curses the nuisance.
The motoring life — too many cars, too many nuts, not enough lanes, not enough time — is fraught with opportunities to be myopic, ungrateful and angry. Interstate 95 is, in some stretches, what the British call "particularly vexing." It will turn the most pleasant of individuals into glassy-eyed ingrates, grousing at the guys laying rebar and concrete.
And even when highway repairs are undertaken with a minimum of disruption, most of us don't pay much attention to what's happening on the side of the road. We know those guys in the hard hats are doing something, but what?
Then one day, you look up, and there's nothing to grouse about. The crews and cranes are gone. Suddenly you're pleased, maybe even awed, by what seems to have happened over a few weeks when it really took seven years — and hundreds of millions of dollars.
The interchange of I-95 and the Baltimore Beltway in the Rossville/White Marsh area of Baltimore County provides a perfect example of a Highway Ah-hah! A lot of people, including me, are just now starting to notice the full scale of work that has been done there since 2006.
Engineers and construction companies have turned a spaghetti bowl of old highway into long, looping strands of freeway with the intent of increasing flow and diminishing congestion in the region. Included in the remedy is a Kings Dominion-size ramp — 110 feet at its highest point — and the elimination of a left-hand exit.
And here's the part that might shock even those of you who have been paying attention: The highway has been widened — and I mean, really widened.
I mean, it's wide.
The stretch of I-95 from Baltimore to White Marsh is now 12 lanes across: four northbound, four southbound and, in between, there are two northbound toll lanes and two southbound toll lanes.
People willing to pay for the privilege will be able to slip out of the general-purpose lanes and into express toll lanes, or ETLs.
The ETLs run almost eight miles, and you pay by the mile with E-ZPass. The system is completely electronic — no toll booths with toll-takers.
The board of the Maryland Transportation Authority already has approved a proposed "dynamic pricing" plan for the ETLs. Rates will vary by the time of day and type of vehicle. Using the express lanes could cost between 25 cents and 35 cents per mile during peak hours, maybe more during a holiday rush.
All this is still being worked out and becomes effective next year.
During my I-95 Highway Ah-hah! the other day, I wondered why the state was pushing ETLs exclusively and not HOV lanes — that is, high-occupancy vehicle lanes that encourage car-pooling. (Remember car-pooling?)
We have HOV lanes on two other stretches of highway in Maryland, so why not this very wide stretch of I-95?
I started nosing around for an answer to this.
According to Peter Samuel, former editor-publisher of TOLLROADSNews.com and now a contributing writer to that site, a combination of ETLs and HOV lanes (so-called HOTs, for High Occupancy/Tolls) are all the rage these days. These systems allow high-occupancy vehicles to use the express lanes for free or at discount.
HOV lanes are underused, Samuel said, and enforcing the law, which requires two or more people in each vehicle, has become problematic for police. "The trend," said Samuel, who lives in Frederick, "has been to convert HOV [lanes] to HOTs."
So, I wondered, would the ETLs on I-95 in Maryland actually be HOTs?
On its website, the MdTA says: "Drivers still will have a financial incentive to carpool in the ETLs, reducing the cost of using the lanes by one-half or a third for two- and three-person carpools."
So that's interesting. Does that mean you will be able get a high-occupancy vehicle pass and use it in the ETL free of charge or at a discount — you know, a reward for car-pooling to and from work?
Here's the official answer I received Monday from MdTA: "The I-95 ETLs are not considered HOV or HOT lanes; however there is a financial incentive among carpoolers to use the ETLs as each person could split the cost of the toll."
Sorry, that answer gave me the giggles. We're not going to give high-occupancy vehicles a financial break in the ETLs, but if you're a car-poooler, you can always take up a collection among passengers to reduce your per-person costs of using the express lanes.
I know I'm a little late to this party, but I think we're missing an opportunity to encourage fewer cars on the road — and less gasoline consumption — by allowing HOVs to benefit from the new, improved, wide-body I-95. Come on, a little sugar for car-poolers, please.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.