Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is proposing to widen and add toll lanes to three of Maryland's biggest highways: I-270, the Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. To do so, he'd turn management over to a private company, and the US National Park Service would have to abandon the parkway as a national park.
Hogan announced the plan at a press event this morning. This map, photographed by NBC's Adam Tuss, explains the proposal:
— Adam Tuss (@AdamTuss) September 21, 2017
Widen, toll, and partially privatize
According to the plan, Maryland would widen the three highways by four lanes each, presumably with two new lanes in each direction. The new lanes would be tolled “express lanes,” meaning drivers could likely continue to use the existing lanes for free, but would pay a toll to use the new lanes. A private company would front some of the construction cost, and would manage the lanes once open.
The three highways would ultimately look and function similarly to how Virginia's existing express toll lanes work on their side of the Beltway. It's not clear yet whether carpoolers and buses would be able to use the lanes for free, as they do in Virginia, or would have to pay a toll.
If all goes according to Hogan's plan, construction would begin in 2019, and would cost $9 billion.
Close a national park?
Maryland already controls I-270 and its portion of the Beltway, and can therefore move this plan forward on those roads. But south of Fort Meade, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is owned by the National Park Service, which complicates this proposal tremendously. For widen-and-toll to happen on the parkway, Congress would have to pass legislation abandoning national parkland.
And regardless of the transportation planning questions involved here, the prospect of the Trump administration turning over federal parkland to state highway departments or private toll companies raises serious concerns.
Whether or not BW Parkway and its peers like the George Washington Parkway really belong as parks is a legitimate policy question. They may have been originally built for pleasure drives, but they've clearly evolved to become commuter and through highways not much different from any Interstate.
A public debate about how to treat these parkways is probably overdue.
Replace the Legion Bridge
According to Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, this proposal also includes replacing the American Legion Bridge, which carries the Beltway across the Potomac River between Virginia and Montgomery County.
That's a huge project on its own, hardly a tiny detail. But the bridge is now over 50 years old, and will be due for some form of reconstruction soon regardless.
Get used to talking about it
No matter how this proposal shakes out, it's going to be a major topic of debate in the Washington region for years to come.
Is widening and tolling worthwhile? Will NPS give up its land? How big a political fight will widening a highway in Bethesda be? Once all these toll lanes are in place, why wouldn't DC toll its highways too? What sort of bus connections should there be?
There are a lot of questions. Get used to talking about them.