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No Traffic Jams for the Wealthy?

State examining adding toll lanes to the Beltway.

Imagine driving on a Beltway with an extra lane. Now, imagine paying a toll to use two of the lanes. That’s the plan currently being studied by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

At the direction of Secretary of Transportation Robert Flanagan, the state is studying the creation of Express Toll Lanes. Part of this would include widening the Beltway to add a lane, and turning two of the lanes into toll lanes. “The plan is to add one lane and convert one lane,” said Erin Henson, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation.

The proposal does not involve the creation of High-Occupancy Toll (sometimes called HOT) lanes. This type of lane allows drivers who carpool to ride in the lanes for free, while single drivers have to pay.

These lanes will do away with the carpool lanes and just charge everyone.

Henson says that the lanes will not remove the incentive to carpool. “People would want to share the costs of the toll,” she said.

The study of the project is currently underway so many variables are not known. There is no specific proposal at this time for the amount of the toll, or whether it would be a flat rate or increase depending on the distance traveled. The toll would be higher during peak — or "rush" — hours.

The study is only considering using the lanes on the Beltway, I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and part of I-95, north of Baltimore (called section 100).

“The project furthest along is I-95 section 100,” Henson said. She said that lanes could be open in that area as early as 2010.

MDOT claims that travel in the three free lanes would be helped since every car which uses the tolls lanes means one less car in the free lanes. However, there are no estimates on the number of drivers who might choose to use the lanes, if they were made available. “That’s where the studies will take us,” Henson said.

Part of the plan does include use of a dynamic pricing schedule where drivers would pay more to use the lanes during peak hours. Tolls would be collected at highway speeds using electronic transponders similar to EZ Pass.

Additionally, buses would be permitted to use the lanes.

“Part of the program is a premium bus service,” Henson said.

But some experts warn that the non-toll lanes could become more congested as a result.

“What this would introduce would be a jamming up of the three regular lanes,” said Byron Bloch, a Potomac resident and auto safety consultant.

Additionally, Bloch pointed out that the many tractor-trailers which travel the Beltway would be forced to use the free lanes, further congesting them for auto drivers. “You’re creating safety problems. You’re creating pollution problems,” he said.

Bloch points out that while motorists wealthy enough to afford the tolls would be permitted to drive in the two new lanes, poorer residents would be stuck in the remaining three. “It fractionalizes our society even more,” Bloch said.

To put the idea in perspective, Bloch flipped the scenario. "What if you reverse it?” he said. He asked what would the reaction be if only people making under $40,000 per year were allowed to use them. “If you reverse it they’ll scream and say it’s unfair,” Bloch said.

Taking away lanes intended for carpools is another concern.

“We should not be using existing lanes for toll lanes that don’t encourage HOV [carpool] use,” said Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16). Bronrott is the chair of the Montgomery County delegation’s transportation committee. “The idea of claiming existing lanes is counterintuitive.”

While Bronrott is open to the idea of creating additional lanes where there is space, he thinks the focus should not be on making lanes for single-occupant vehicles. “Get more single occupant vehicles off the Beltway and off the bridge,” he said.

Bronrott thinks that the Governor needs to take a more comprehensive look at transportation problems, including adding mass transit projects into the mix. “I just get a feeling that we’re looking at it piecemeal,” he said.

Bloch raised what he saw as other issues with the proposal. Bloch explained that people who want to use the lanes will try to move into them as quickly as possible and out of them as late as possible. This might cause them to change lanes more rapidly than they should. “It really becomes a nightmare of interweaving traffic,” he said.

Bloch raises safety concerns whenever governments talk about adding a new lanes to the road. He fears that in lieu of actually widening the road, they will take a cheaper alternative, use the shoulder and repaint the lines to make all of the lanes narrower. “Now, everybody is traveling closer together,” he said. He pointed to Los Angeles, where he lived for several years, as a cautionary example of that idea.

Bloch hopes that the toll lanes would be opened up to everybody when a lane on the free side was closed to traffic. “It’s unfair whenever there’s either roadwork or an accident,” he said.

Reporter David Harrison contributed to this article.