From the front seat of a car, the future of transportation in the Washington region looks like hundreds of miles of toll lanes.
With Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s new plan to expand the Beltway, I-270 and Baltimore-Washington Parkway each by four lanes, his state is poised to join Virginia in seeking private developers to build HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes to relieve congestion on major highways.
With an estimated cost of $9 billion, the project would be the largest public-private partnership for a highway project in the country, raising an array of questions concerning the state’s transportation priorities, the efficacy of tolling to unclog traffic, the public’s willingness to pay, and – in the case of BW Parkway (MD 295) – whether it is appropriate to transfer federal land to a for-profit toll road endeavor.
Under the HOT lane system, the price of the toll rises and falls along with traffic demand; as more cars flow into the HOT lanes, the electronically-charged, dynamically-priced toll increases in order to maintain speeds of 55 mph. Motorists have the option to stay in the free lanes, but risk getting stuck in traffic if they are unwilling or cannot afford to pay the toll.
The sheer scale of the governor’s proposal, unveiled at a news conference in Gaithersburg on Thursday, makes clear Hogan does not believe piecemeal projects will work. And he is not afraid to promote bold ideas, given his administration’s ongoing study of a high-speed maglev train between Baltimore and Washington — a project that could cost at least $10 billion.
Tolling the entire length of the Capital Beltway in Maryland would require 44 miles of construction, leaving only about 8 miles of I-495 without electronic toll gantries, all in Virginia: from the Wilson Bridge to the I-95 interchange. Virginia, in a public-private partnership with Australia-based Transurban, opened HOT lanes on 14 miles of the Beltway in late 2012, from the American Legion Bridge south to I-95.
If the maximum concept is realized, the 44 miles of the Beltway, 34 miles of I-270, and 32 miles of BW Parkway would give Maryland 110 miles of HOT lanes situated across the river from the 85 miles of express toll lanes Virginia plans to have by 2022, with the opening of the I-66 outside the beltway project.
Such massive investments in highway expansions are leaving transit and smart growth advocates dismayed that regional leaders could be largely giving up on their preferred way to reduce congestion. By changing land use patterns by putting more jobs and housing near high-capacity transit hubs, these advocates argue, commuters would not have to drive in the first place. They say Hogan’s idea will only encourage more drive-alone commuters – the very cause of congestion – even though HOT lanes typically allow carpoolers and buses free access.
In response to these criticisms, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn argues that new train lines and bus routes are not sufficient to tackle the region’s traffic problems.
“This isn’t a question of transit versus roads. We have to have both,” Rahn said. “The world is awash in capital that is looking for projects exactly like these.”
Do HOT lanes work?
Transportation experts say express toll lanes are effective in providing users predictable travel times and congestion-free travel. It is unclear over the long term to what extent HOT lanes will relieve congestion in the free lanes running parallel to them.
Virginia officials say traffic flow has improved on the regular lanes on I-495 since the HOT lanes there opened five years ago. But if you accept the rule of “induced demand” – built it and more cars will come – then any relief could be temporary.
“Whether it is going to relieve congestion on the un-tolled lanes is a question,” said Rob Puentes, the head of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank. “It is probably not going to be able to do that because of this rule of induced demand. Folks will still be attracted to the roads and will fill it up with traffic.”
In the HOT lanes, Puentes says, “the tolls themselves will be used to moderate the congestion and keep it relatively congestion-free.”
Dan Malouff, the editor of the pro-transit blog BeyondDC, said Hogan’s plan raises questions that simply cannot be answered at this point.
“Will there be buses on these highways, and if so where will they go and how will they be paid for? Where will the toll profits go? Will they go to the state? Will they go to the private contractor? Will they go to transit? Who knows?” said Malouff, who said Hogan’s desire to obtain the BW Parkway from the U.S. Department of the Interior is potentially troubling.
“There is the question of whether the National Park Service and Trump administration should be giving away national park land to a state or a private contractor in order to run a highway,” he said.
Solution ignores the real problem
Others are not waiting to see the plan unfold before condemning it. Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that adding lanes to the Beltway will not solve the root cause of traffic congestion: the imbalance of opportunities between the east and west sides of the region.
“Most of the worst traffic is westbound to Montgomery County and Northern Virginia in the morning, and then eastbound on the inner loop back to Prince George’s in the evening. That’s a land use problem, a jobs and housing balance problem, not at its core a transportation problem.”
Schwartz’s group lobbies local and state governments to change zoning laws to allow more housing and jobs to be located near Metrorail and other transit stations.
“Unfortunately the multi-national toll companies have really hijacked the transportation planning process and have undue influence to the exclusion of other alternatives that would better protect neighborhoods and the environment,” he said.
To transit advocates, there is not enough asphalt in the world that can be paved to end traffic jams. To Maryland’s top transportation official, Pete Rahn, the state is capable of fixing highways at the same time as it commits to spending billions on transit in the form of the Purple Line light rail project in the suburbs.
“There have been very few major improvements to highway systems on the Maryland side of the capital region,” Rahn said. “It’s been neglected too long.”
If all goes as planned, Rahn said construction could begin by 2019. That depends on whether the state can reach a deal with a private developer to design, finance, build, operate, and maintain the express toll lanes, and, in the case of MD 295, whether Maryland can obtain the parkway from the federal government.
Photos courtesy of Jose Luis Magana / AP and MDOT. Click here to view the original story.