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Charging for the Beltway

Maryland DOT brings toll lane proposal to Park and Planning.

Park and Planning commissioners did not like what they heard. Officials from the Maryland Department of Transportation brought their plans to study widening the Beltway and turning lanes into toll lanes to the commission for comment.

The state is studying widening the Beltway by one lane for its entire length and making that lane, and one of the existing lanes, into toll lanes, at the direction of Secretary of Transportation Robert Flanagan.

As another part of the project, the planners will study making some smaller, spot improvement to parts of the road and to some interchanges.

Planners from the state continued to make the same arguments. There is no money, they say, to afford to add any capacity to the Beltway – the study will also examine adding toll lanes to I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and a section of I-95 north of Baltimore.

There had initially been several different options for study, but the toll lane option, along with the "base case" no-build option are the only ones which the state recommends carrying forward. They are presenting their views to both the Planning Board and the County Council in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The toll lane option allows the state to recoup some of the expenses. "What we are trying to pursue is an alternative that would actually help fund the construction," said Raja Veeramachaneni.

There is not enough money to provide relief to these congested lanes anytime soon without using some kind of toll option, according to state officials.

Commissioners were quick to point what they saw as flaws in the plan. Wendy Perdue, commission vice-chair pointed out that by removing one of the existing four lanes it amounts to a 25 percent reduction in capacity. "That’s a non-trivial reduction," she said.

Perdue also pointed out that the lanes are only valuable if they aren’t used to capacity. If the toll lanes are as congested as the regular lanes, it removes the incentive to drive in them. "The only way you generate the money is by making sure it is not used," she said.

And, since the way to make sure that they are not used is by pricing them too high for many motorists to use regularly, another concern was raised. "As a matter of social policy, I have even more questions," Perdue said.

"That’s like saying we should close one-fourth of our parks, convert them into private clubs, and use the money to build more private clubs."

Commissioners also questioned the scope of the study. By studying only one option, there is no basis for comparison. "How do you know [two toll lanes] is going to do better than HOV lanes or one express toll lane?" said Commissioner John Robinson.

The Board recommended that an option for allowing carpools in the lanes for a reduced price should be a part of the study. "I think we should recommend that HOV should be allowed," said Commissioner Meredith Wellington.

The state does not need to heed the recommendation, and has not yet made a decision about which alternatives they will carry forward.

The commission also hinted at what they thought might be the best solution. "The no-build option merits much more serious weight than it is usually given," said Robinson.

Commission chair Derick Berlage concurred. "In this case, I think no-build might be the best option."