The Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) asserts that widening the Beltway and I-270 by adding four privately-financed toll lanes would vastly speed up traffic on the untolled lanes. Frustratingly, the Washington Post, in its news pages and in a Sunday editorial, uncritically repeats these specious claims.
For those unfamiliar with the situation, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan proposed widening these highways in September 2017. MDOT is presenting preliminary findings of its studies at workshops on Wednesday night in Silver Spring (Eastern Middle School) and Thursday night in Rockville (Wootton High School).
Follow the money
According to MDOT, the widening project would cut the time it takes to drive 10 miles from College Park to Bethesda during the morning rush hour from 43 minutes down to 13 minutes in the free lanes and 10 minutes in the toll lanes. But the state’s plan won’t make this happen.
If drivers save a mere three minutes by using the toll lanes, few would pay the high tolls the project needs to earn a profit. The privately-built toll lanes on the Beltway in Virginia charge $1.50 to $1.80 per mile at the peak of rush hour, and they are losing money hand over fist.
The agency comes up with its traffic speed forecasts by ignoring the profit motive. It assumes that the toll lanes carry as many cars as they have room for, short of backing up. But a private company’s goal is to earn revenue, not move cars. The more congestion in the untolled lanes, the higher the price it can charge. As the CEO of the Australian company that runs the Virginia toll lanes told his stockholders in February, “We’re trying to maximize the tolls.”
Traffic counts on the busiest stretch of the Virginia Beltway (between I-395 and Braddock Road) confirm that the toll lanes operate far below capacity. Each toll lane carries fewer than 8,000 vehicles on an average weekday. A free lane in that area carries 28,000 to 30,000 vehicles.
So it's unlikely that drivers will spread evenly across all of the lanes to create a fast and seamless commute as MDOT claims. In fact, the companies that set the tolls will have every reason to make sure that doesn't happen.
The press needs to treat road issues with scrutiny
Travel times are not the only falsehoods that the Post repeats. Its editorial states that “Car usage nationally is expanding at roughly twice the rate of population growth.” In fact, the average American drives fewer miles today than in 2005. Over the last 10 years, highway agency forecasts of ever-rising car travel have lost all credibility.
The editorial concludes with a dark warning that failure to build the toll lanes will cause “stagnation and job loss.” Actually, businesses like Marriott and Amazon are fleeing highway office parks to locate near transit. The real threat to Maryland's economy is the state's inaction on needed transit.
Plus, neither piece mentions climate change—a glaring oversight when reporting on a project that would encourage more driving, a major contributor of global warming emissions.
And Hogan was obviously lying when, before last year’s election, he said that not a single house would be torn down to build the toll lanes. The state has admitted as much, and it now states that the widening could claim up to 34 homes and four businesses. The traffic relief claims Hogan's administration puts forward deserve no more credence.
The core mission of a free press is to check the claims of officialdom against reality. The Post is failing in that mission. As one of our local news outlets likes to say, democracy dies in darkness.