The Hogan administration is moving ahead with plans to construct new toll lanes on I-270 and the Capital Beltway in Maryland, while Virginia Governor Northam inked a deal to expand the state's toll lanes as well. But critics say that Maryland's plans are moving too fast, procedurally, while the actual highway may not move most drivers faster at all.
Hogan announced his plan in September of 2017 and put it on the fast track (fast lane?). The state is currently negotiating a public-private partnership with a company to build and operate the lanes while also wrapping up an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) most recently narrowed the set of alternatives to only ones that involve building more tolled highway lanes, either HOT lanes which are free to carpoolers and transit, or ones where everyone has to pay a toll.
Federal laws require states and cities to consider a variety of transportation modes, so the EIS included a consideration of Bus Rapid Transit, bus-only lanes, free car lanes, heavy rail, and Transportation Demand Management. Given that Hogan announced this in the first place as about adding toll lanes plus the administration's demonstrated hostility to transit, however, this was likely a matter of going through the motions, and state officials have now settled on the plan they favored all along.
As the EIS moves ahead, residents still don't have a lot of answers to questions like how many houses will have to be demolished next to the highways and how much taxpayer funding the lanes will take. Meanwhile, the state is still pursuing signing deals with private contractors to build and operate the lanes.
The state legislature is considering a bill by Delegate Al Carr (D-Montgomery) to require that the EIS reach a completed draft, with answers to some of these questions, before the governor can sign a public-private partnership (P3) contract. On the Kojo Nnamdi Show, which now very helpfully features transcripts of the shows, fellow Montgomery County delegate Marc Korman and a co-sponsor of the bill said,
Before we giave away public infrastructure for 50 years, we should make sure we understand what it is we're actually doing and getting into and what the project really is. And we just don't have those details yet. Right now it's very pie in the sky. This is going to solve all our traffic problems. It's not going to cost the state any money. We're not going to have to take any homes. These are the claims of the administration. And we just want to see some more details on that before we commit to a 50 year public private partnership.
Further, as proposed, MDOT's solicitation for P3 firms allows MDOT to extend P3 deals to other segments of 270 and the Beltway beyond those being analyzed in this EIS without further review by the legislature, meaning the process being deployed and the expected P3 deal could bind the state and its residents in an even more far-reaching way.
Korman noted that Virginia Governor Northam recently closed a deal to add toll lanes on I-95 and extend existing Beltway toll lanes to the American Legion Bridge, where they could connect to Maryland's. But, he said, “If you use Virginia's numbers, for example, [Hogan's toll lane plan] would cost us over $15 billion,” while the administration had mentioned a figure of $9-11 billion, and at one point argued the project would not cost taxpayers anything.
Another bill by Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore) would require the state to get the agreement of affected counties for any toll road construction or expansion, similar to a law already in place for Eastern Shore counties.
Would traffic get better?
The Maryland Department of Transportation has said in letters that the toll projects will provide “meaningful congestion relief.” Critics, however, say that for people who can't or won't pay the toll, the existing congestion will not get better. In fact, it can't if the operator is to make money.
Korman explains in this exchange on the show:
Nnamdi: how do you respond to locals who want to see their commutes shortened and see highway expansion as a positive step in that direction?
Korman: Well, I want to see their commute shortened too. That's why we want to make sure we have a product that's actually going to do that and solve the problem. So, for example, the model for these toll roads is that you pay extra to ride in this lane that has free flowing traffic. Well, if you're going to be incentivized to do that, if you can afford to do it that means there still has to be a lot of traffic in the general purpose lane, the ones that aren't tolled. …
Nnamdi: Well, I guess the logic is that if there are people using those toll lanes regardless of what their income level is, then the other non-toll lanes are likely to be less congested. That would be the argument.
Korman: Then why would somebody pay the toll?
The Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, a group opposed to the Maryland toll lanes, cited a recent earnings call by Transurban CEO Scott Charlton, who said, “If you look at just the Greater Washington Area, it's about revenue and EBITDA growth, not about the traffic growth because we're trying to maximize the tolls.” (EBITDA is Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization, a common metric for corporate earnings.)
Charlton is saying that in order to make their revenue growth targets, they need to keep the tolls up, which means not maximizing how many cars go through the lanes. Also, to make the lanes worth paying for, the speeds in those lanes need to be fast, which doesn't happen if too many drivers are in them.
Toll lanes are better than building new free lanes, since free lanes simply induce enough new demand to fill up the new lanes. People move farther from work where they can afford larger houses until the new lanes are as traffic-filled as the old. Korman said,
Typically there's induced demand when you widen a road. That's what happened with 270 the last time it was widened in the 90s. And the engineers came back and said, Wow that filled up a lot faster than we expected. The only way to keep it from not filling up is by putting on high priced tolls. The only way those can work as an economic model is if the general purpose lanes that normal folks can ride in are gridlocked.
Repurposing existing free lanes for tolls is a sensible idea, though politically quite unpopular. Virginia's I-66 toll project, for instance, let people pay to drive on existing lanes which had formerly been HOV-only, so that wasn't adding capacity. It also has become something of a punching bag for political candidates in Fairfax and Loudoun of both parties.
The plan doesn't yet meet tolling best practices
The Greater Washington Partnership, a group led by area CEOs which is not opposed to toll lanes, issued a set of “Performance-Driven Tolling Principles” last year;
- Tolling investments should improve the transportation system, not just the tolled facility
- Toll planning should be coordinated regionally to deliver the benefits of greater mobility and reliability to all consumers of the transportation system
- Decision-makers should prioritize providing enhanced connectivity to the greatest number of people, not moving the most vehicles or generating the most revenue
- Consumers of all income levels should benefit from the tolling investment, including those without the financial means to afford the tolls
- Tolling revenue should be invested in cost-effective public transportation enhancements
- Public agencies should conduct robust and broad public engagement to develop goals, performance metrics and public benefit assessments for each tolling project, whether delivered by the public agency or by a public-private partnership
So far, MDOT has not made explicit that it is their goal to meet any of these principles. There is still time for the EIS process to unfold and these principles to be included, but without the “robust and broad public engagement” of #6, which has certainly been absent thus far, there's no way to determine if the project would meet, for instance, #1 through #3.
The issue about toll lanes keeping general lanes slow, as discussed above, violates #4, and there's absolutely no plan discussed for investing revenue in transit, as #5 prescribes and Virginia does. Virginia has included a set of principles very similar to the Partnership's in its toll lane solicitations, while MDOT's are much vaguer — “innovation,” “congestion reduction,” and “national security,” none of which meaningfully steer the state in any direction.
What should Maryland do?
If you're going to have road expansion, tolling is better than not, but road expansion is probably not the best thing to try first. The Hogan administration cut plans for east-west transit in Baltimore and almost cut the Purple Line. It has neglected the MARC train despite it representing the best and possibly cheapest way to significantly beef up transportation within Maryland as well as get Marylanders to new jobs in Crystal City.
We haven't heard a peep since Hogan took office about the Corridor Cities Transitway, a Bus Rapid Transit project to connect Shady Grove to the various Gaithersburg-area office parks and then up to Clarksburg. This route, which parallels 270 and would meet many of the same mobility needs, was the result of a 2009 corridor study which considered both transit and road widening.
Instead, the Hogan Administration has ignored these proposals and is set on widening roads before answering basic questions.
When asked what he'd favor instead of new toll lanes, Korman said,
First of all I think transit is a big part of it. And some of the alternatives do look at transit options. And we need to look at those in a serious way. There's also areas of the Beltway and 270 that can be improved. And in fact, right now, Governor Hogan and his administration are investing about $100 million in a congestion management plan on 270 that, you know, does some things like that to try to improve the situation in spot improvement areas as opposed to adding two lanes in each direction.
Korman, Carr, and others are still hoping to slow down the toll lane process, though Hogan is likely to veto any bills the legislature passes to check his power.