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Toiling over Toll Lanes

Residents express doubts about proposed $4 billion project.

Long commute?

The Washington, D.C. area ranks third worst in the country in traffic congestion among major metropolitan areas, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration, in spite of ranking first in telecommuting and carpooling and second in transportation infrastructure.

That disparity was part of the impetus behind a study by State Highway Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation planners to add express toll lanes to the Capital Beltway on most of its 42 miles in Maryland — from the American Legion Bridge to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The study, now several years underway, grew out of an earlier proposal to add one High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the same stretch. That project originated in the early 1990s.

State Highway Senior Project Manager Sue Rajan presented the current plans to local officials and citizens at an April 18 meeting of the Transportation Committee of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board in Glen Echo.

Rajan said the project would cost more than $4 billion and remains in the "detailed study" phase, with three proposed alternatives on the table and construction at least seven years off.

The state is considering two alternatives that would include adding a new lane to both sides of the Beltway, as well as the no-build alternative, which would leave the road as it is.

Under one plan, both the new lane and an existing free lane would become express toll lanes, charging drivers a variable fee to access them and bypass heavier traffic in the free lanes. A second plan would add a toll lane while keeping all of the existing free lanes intact.

Many questions about the toll lanes remain unresolved, including the amount of the tolls and whether they would vary based on fixed schedules, with the tolls being higher during peak travel hours, or on a real-time basis, with the tolls increasing in proportion to traffic congestion regardless of the time of day.

The tolls would be collected by an all-electronic system of overhead sensors similar to the existing EZ-Pass tollbooth technology.

Virginia is studying adding two High Occupancy Toll lanes on its side of the Beltway. That proposal would allow carpoolers to use the lanes for free while solo drivers would have to pay a toll. But Maryland’s plan would charge each car regardless of the number of occupants.

Current plans call for a final recommendation on one of the options, including detailed environmental study and location approval in fall, 2006.

COMMUNITY MEMBERS have raised concerns that Maryland’s toll lanes do not encourage carpooling, that the construction would be disruptive to residents near the Beltway, and that it would be unfair to start charging for an existing free lane paid for by taxpayers, as proposed under one of the options.

But planners say that the current Beltway traffic is untenable and likely to worsen and that the revenue generated by the all-toll express lanes is needed to subsidize the needed but expensive improvement. Allowing high occupancy vehicles to use the lanes for free would be nearly impossible because of the difficulty of enforcing the tolls for some drivers while allowing carpools to pass, Rajan said, although several proposals for combination toll-carpool lanes are progressing in Virginia.

The tolls would help fund the construction of the new lanes but would not fully cover the cost, which would be made up with bonds. The construction funding would likely come from both the state and federal government, but the exact source remains unclear. So far, only the planning study has been funded.

“If we’re at E/F, why are we going to do something that’s just going to get us to level D or level E, probably for a short period of time?” Advisory Board Transportation Committee member David Smith asked Rajan, referring to level-of-service ratings used by traffic planners, with A being the best and F the worst.

“We are hoping that it is a long period of time,” Rajan said. “We are hoping that by some of the traffic moving into the toll lanes, the free lanes will also move, but still there is going to be congestion in the free lanes.”

Another concern, raised by Advisor Board Chair Alan Freeman was that “this would allow the wealthy to move quickly and those that don’t have as much in their pocket to toil in congestion.”

Rajan said that studies of High Occupancy Toll lane users in California show that many drivers use the lanes when they are in a particular rush without relying on them on a daily basis.

EITHER of the building options would require displacing residents in four locations and would include the replacement of sound barriers along the Beltway sections where they currently exist and the installation of stormwater management ponds and numerous locations. The stormwater controls would be built to handle 100 percent of the runoff from the new lanes and 20 percent of the runoff from existing lanes. Such facilities do not currently exist because they were not required when the Beltway was first constructed.

State Highway is also investigating adding express toll lanes on I-270, the Baltimore Beltway, and a nine-mile section of I-95 north of Baltimore known as Section 100.