Photo by bankbryan.

Montgomery County officials are continuing their push to reduce tolls on the Intercounty Connector and have the State of Maryland further subsidize their sprawl-inducing highway.

The latest to complain is new Montgomery County Council President Nancy Floreen, who is calling the tolls “highway robbery.” But Floreen strongly supported building the road in the first place, and state officials said all along the road would have tolls to pay back much (but far from all) of the cost.

As one media outlet after another covers local officials’ opposition to the tolls and notes that the tolls will be “among the highest in the nation,” none seems to have asked Floreen what changed since her original support. Did she know the tolls would be this high, and is now just flipping based on resident outrage, or did she not know? And if she didn’t know, why not? The information MdTA is using today to calculate the tolls was available then. Did Floreen not ask what the tolls would be, or did state officials refuse to explain?

A similar drama is beginning for the Interstate 270 widening, where the County Council unanimously voted to support a scaled-down but still expensive widening. Their recommendation calls for two reversible HOT lanes. At the prodding of ACT, the County Council asked SHA what the toll rates were likely to be, but SHA refused to answer. Rather than push harder for answers, the County Council just threw up its hands and approved the road.

If Maryland can ever afford to build the road (since they’ve spent decades of future transportation money on the ICC), will Floreen and the others start complaining about high tolls there as well?

They might also end up complaining about traffic jams. According to the report by MdTA’s consultant for toll rates, maximizing revenue on I-270, as they are on the ICC, depends on “operational failure” — traffic jams. In short, despite officials’ pronouncements that this project will relieve congestion, most likely the road will end up with jammed free lanes and free-flowing yet expensive HOT lanes which local politicians will again denounce as inequitable “Lexus lanes” or “highway robbery.”

With the ICC, opponents repeatedly warned residents and leaders that this “sticker shock” was likely. Their claims fell on deaf ears, but now are turning out to be spot on. How many members of the Montgomery Council will suddenly discover problems with the I-270 HOT lanes once it’s too late? Their best hope is that it will take so long to build the road that they won’t be around any more.

Frequent candidate Robin Ficker has joined in the ICC toll whining. He wants Maryland to divert some of its statewide sales tax and upcoming slot gambling revenue to make the ICC free. Michael Dresser notes that the sales tax pays for other services that benefit more Maryland residents, like education, and Montgomery isn’t welcoming any slots within its boundaries.

But if Ficker is so eager to use sales tax and slots money for transportation, why not advocate using some of the money to make Metro and the Baltimore transit systems free? Or, better yet, use it to improve MARC? Why do leaders, including anti-tax crusaders like Ficker, want public money to keep driving free but don’t bat an eyelash at the rising costs of transit?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.