Image by urbandispute used with permission.

Montgomery residents shouldn’t expect any transit improvements with Governor Larry Hogan’s highway-widening plan, a recent press conference revealed. Nor can they be sure that the planned HOT lines will pay for themselves as promised and that tolls will not be exorbitant.

On Thursday, November 16, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn briefed the Montgomery County Council on Hogan’s plan to add new toll lanes to I-270, the Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Governor Hogan announced his plan for new toll lanes to be built by the private sector as a public-private partnership two months ago. The unveiling caught local officials by surprise, as the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) did not consult with them prior to the announcement.

Rahn didn’t give many detail about the plan, but his comments did provide some insights into the administration’s perspective on improving transportation in the state.  

Image by Change Maryland used with permission.

Rahn reveals that MDOT is not keen on including transit in the project

When pressed about how transit would be incorporated into the proposal, Rahn said transit vehicles would be permitted to use the toll lanes free of charge. However, he says MDOT does not view the Corridors Cities Transitway (CCT), a long-proposed bus rapid transit line connecting Shady Grove to Clarksburg, as a component of this plan.

He called the CCT a “local bus” rather than an alternative to I-270, saying that the route had become too circuitous to be an alternative for through-travelers.

However, MDOT has not promoted the CCT as a “local bus;” rather, as a line explicitly designed to give upcounty travelers a viable transit alternative to congested roads like I-270, and allow them to reach distant employment and entertainment centers. While the CCT may not be useful for a commuter traveling from Frederick to Bethesda, it will allow people traveling between Clarksburg, Germantown, and Gaithersburg a feasible transit alternative for upcounty trips.

Rahn also said boosting the MARC Brunswick Line between Frederick and DC, or running light rail over an expanded American Legion Bridge (a potential Purple Line extension over the bridge to Tysons performed well in a Transportation Planning Board long-term study) would be outside of the scope of this project.

Rahn says MDOT put out a request for information (RFI) in late September, and has set a December deadline for private firms to submit their plans to add toll lanes to the three corridors. Details about the number of new toll lanes, land needed for widening, and toll rates won’t be known until the RFIs come back.

According to Rahn, MDOT is looking for companies with the best proposals for “moving the most cars the fastest and the farthest” as they review the upcoming RFI submissions. The highways will be broken into defined segments (rather than having all of I-270 or the Beltway bid out as a single project) in order to stimulate competition amongst firms.

Rahn argued that the highway widenings are needed to accommodate the needs of motorists in the Baltimore/Washington area, and noted that the region has the worst traffic congestion in the nation.

However, widening highways often does not result in long-term congestion relief. While adding new tolled capacity is different than adding free lanes, the appeal of toll lanes depends on the adjacent free lanes being congested. For drivers unwilling or unable to pay, they will still be stuck in traffic jams with modest relief at best.

The widening could cost you

Rahn told the council that the toll rates will not be known until bids are received from the private sector, but he did say that they would not be prohibitively expensive. While it may be the case that the tolls will be a reasonable amount, private toll roads elsewhere in the United States have seen sharp increases in toll rates, such as an Indiana toll road where rates more than doubled when the state stopped subsidizing the price and the private operator charged users the cost needed to keep the road profitable for the investors.

The press conference revelations didn’t end there. Rahn said the project may require state dollars up front for “gap funding,” contrary to Hogan’s claim that no public funds would be needed.

These gap funds may be necessary to offset contractors’ construction costs in areas where the toll lanes don’t bring in as much revenue. A similar thing happened in Virginia, where the state contributed a share of public funds to lower-performing I-95 Express Lanes.

The contractor operating Maryland’s proposed toll lanes may also need to be reimbursed by the state if the state wants to allow carpoolers to use the lanes at a reduced rate or for free, according to Rahn. He stressed that we will not know more specifics until the state receives more information from the potential concessionaires.

The numbers might be faulty

Rahn said the $9 billion cost estimate for the three corridors was generated based on the approximate cost per lane mile of repairing parts of area Interstates ($100 million per lane mile,) multiplied by the number of lane miles in the concept.

Given that highway repairs do not entail new construction or right-of-way acquisition, this method raises questions as to the accuracy of the initial cost estimate. In more constrained areas along to the Beltway and I-270, the cost of property takings or of building a viaduct to avoid such takings will be high.

It is unclear if these high costs and the demand for the lanes will still allow the contractors to make a profit. Rahn did not address questions about the potential unprofitability of the lanes, saying that MDOT needs to see proposals first.

More for moving cars and less for moving people

Overall, MDOT’s RFI sent to potential contractors is focused on improving auto mobility, rather than comprehensive people mobility. MDOT has not asked potential contractors to include a transit or carpooling component in their plans, and Rahn poo-pooed inquiries about boosting existing transit.

Until the RFIs are received in late December and made public, the scope of the expansion and impacts to surrounding communities will remain unknown. However, Rahn’s comments give a pretty clear picture of where the administration’s priorities lie.

Sean Emerson is a lifelong resident of the Four Corners area of Silver Spring, where he blogs about his community at Around The Corners. He became interested in planning and transportation issues after reading Just Up the Pike and Greater Greater Washington. He has served on the board of Action Committee for Transit since 2016. His views expressed here are his alone.