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When Social Goals Conflict with Traffic

Public Forum on toll lanes draws large crowd.

Rob Guttenberg of Bethesda is concerned that toll lanes on the Beltway could further fragment the citizens of Montgomery County. “It seems to me that with these lanes, you can create a greater divide between the haves and the have nots,” Guttenberg said.

“Those who can afford to drive in the proposed toll lanes will be able to get home faster and spend more time with their families,” said Guttenberg, who works with families in his professional life. Children in those wealthier families will already have some advantages that other families will not, and these lanes will add more time with their parents to that list. “You start to see a cycle. Family time together is what builds success.”

Guttenberg was attending a public forum about the proposal to add Express Toll Lanes to the Beltway, I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and a stretch of I-95 north of Baltimore on May 17. The forum, which drew a large crowd, did not have a formal presentation. Instead, interested residents came and asked question of state officials from the different agencies which are overseeing the various aspects of the program.

The proposal, advanced by Robert Flanagan, Maryland’s secretary of transportation, is to widen the Beltway by one lane for its entire 42-mile length, then to convert two of the five lanes into toll lanes.

Tolls would vary by traffic conditions and time of day, and would be collected with an EZ Pass transponder at highway speeds. Guttenberg’s concern was directed at the toll lanes, and the idea that poorer drivers will not be able to afford the toll lanes, sometime called “Lexus Lanes” by opponents.

Those doing the study point out that the toll option will allow the expansion to go forward long before it would normally be able to, since the tolls collected will help to offset the construction costs. “At this point, we are at a standstill,” said Raja Veeramachaneni, director of the Office of Planning and Preliminary Engineering for the State Highway Administration. “We have a choice of providing some relief or no relief at all.”

Some think the Beltway traffic study, which was initiated in 1995, has gone on long enough.

“The problem with the Beltway is we keep studying it. We don’t do anything,” said Potomac resident Jerry Garson.

Garson thinks the idea may not be a bad one. “If they want to add a lane, it will help,” Garson said. “I don’t like tolls, but if that’s what it needs …”

The proposed lanes would not be the so called HOT lanes, which are currently under discussion in Virginia. “High Occupancy Toll” or HOT lanes allow carpools to drive for free and charge lone drivers for the privilege of driving in them.

The idea of toll lanes, without the carpool component concerns some in Montgomery County government, as well. “Both the Planning Board and the County Council have come out strongly in favor of HOV (carpool lanes),” said Alex Hekimian, transportation planner with the Planning Board. “This conflicts with county policy. We will be very strong in our support of HOV or HOT lanes as part of the study.”

The study is in its early stages; so many variables are not yet known. For example, there is no estimate on what the tolls might be. Planners have not yet decided if the carpool lanes already on I-270 will be left in place, or would be removed.

There is no preliminary estimate for a cost of the study. A typical highway study costs $1.5-2 million, said Veeramachaneni. However, that figure is based on smaller projects and this one will likely cost “much more,” he said.

Part of the study will also include analyzing the social aspect which concerns Guttenberg and others. “The study is going to demonstrate who is going to benefit,” said Veeramachaneni.

Similar lanes are being used in several other parts of the country, and drivers there are giving them high marks, said Veeramachaneni. “It’s not really one group of people that are using it,” he said referring to California’s SR-91, a road which has lanes similar to those proposed. “It did provide relief.”

Veeramachaneni said that the study will have to demonstrate that people in the general purpose, (not toll) lanes will have to see a benefit, as well in order for the project to go forward. “In order for tolling to be viable, you have to benefit lots of people,” he said.