E-Z Pass System on InterCounty Connector is a Curious Target for Smart Growth Group

My friends at Greater Greater Washington (GGW) write about Urbanism and Smart Growth. I do not often agree with them but I believe they bring a valuable viewpoint to the table. But occasionally they write an article that is so lacking in facts and logic that I do not know whether to laugh or cry. Such is the case with the article MD Toll Agency Pushes More Driving to Fill Little Used Road. According to the article:

… the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees toll roads, has embarked on a campaign encouraging people to drive more.

I am going to look past the sin of encouraging people to use their private property in the way they see fit and move onto the actual evidence of the crime. GGW sites as evidence the fact that the agency had a booth at the Bethesda Farmer’s Market. The agency was there to encourage the use of the electronic E-ZPass system. The E-ZPass system is installed on many area roads in the metro area. The E-Z pass system allows customers who set up an account with any of the E-ZPass states to pay their tolls electronically

There are many advantages to electronic tolling. Electronic tolling saves taxpayers money because tollbooths and toll collectors are not required. Electronic tolling is safer because motorists do not have to come to a complete stop, reducing the speed differential between vehicles. And electronic tolling saves time because motorists do not have to fumble for money when stopping at the tollbooth.

E-Z pass can be used on multiple roads. While some Maryland travelers will use it on the InterCounty Connector (ICC) others will use it on the I-495 Express Lanes or for the I-95 or I-895 Baltimore tunnels. Most Bethesda residents will probably use it for non-ICC purposes since the ICC runs roughly 15 miles north of Bethesda. If you are traveling to or from Bethesda, the ICC would almost never be a logical route.

The article next argues that the highway is expensive: 70 cents to travel one exit and $4 to travel the entire length of the road. Actually, this rate is only in rush hour. Outside of rush hour the price ranges from $1.60 to $3.20. But even during rush hour and even if I-495 is not congested, the high-quality road is still cheaper. How? If a customer travels from Laurel to Gaithersburg, chooses I-95 south to the ICC to I-270 north, he has chosen a 23-mile-route. If the customer chooses I-95 south to I-495 west to I-270 north, he has chosen a 31-mile route. That 8-mile difference equates to $4.44 in gas, and wear and tear on the car. That means the ICC more than pays for itself if traffic on both it and I-495 are at free-flow speeds. But of course I-495 is seldom at free-flow speeds. Rush hour conditions can last for eight hours a day and traffic frequently drops far below the 55 mile per hour speed limit on weekends, middays and evenings as well. This makes the ICC an even better deal.

While living close to enough to walk or bike to work may be certain New Urbanists’ dream scenario, in the real world people often cannot live next to their jobs for various reasons. Occupying either an apartment or a house in Bethesda requires a large income. Many workers do not make such an income. In two-person income households, one person may live far from work so the other can live nearby. In other situations the households may choose a residence in between. Some people live in a certain community for the schools offered. There are many Bethesda residents who work in Largo but choose to live in Bethesda because of the quality of the schools.

As this is the case and people choose to drive, New Urbanists and Environmentalists should support toll roads. Why? Because on toll-roads motorists pay close to 100% of the costs. As the gas tax no longer covers the entire cost of highway travel, motorists who travel on free roads are not paying the full costs. This helps in two important ways. First, the higher cost will discourage motorists who do not really want to make the trip. Underpriced highways leads to induced demand where travelers consume more highways than is optimal because the service is cheap. Second, as the government has more funds, it can spend more on other types of transportation including transit. Now, transit is often underpriced, which leads to induced demand. But that’s an argument for another day.

Let’s now visit the claim that the ICC is underused. Since the road has opened in stages and the final section between I-95 and US 1 is still under construction, it is challenging to draw conclusions. However, on the section between I-270 and Georgia Ave, traffic averaged approximately 35,000 vehicles per day last month. The traffic counts on the eastern segment of 26,000 will almost certainly increase when the link to US 1 is opened. Since the highway was designed for traffic counts in 2030, it is a not a disaster if there is some extra capacity today. And there is actually little excess capacity. A six-lane highway such as the ICC is designed for between 40,000 and 60,000 vehicles per day. At 35,000 vehicles in 2012, I feel very confident the highway, which solves a growing area, will easily reach 40,000 by 2030. The bigger problem is that it may exceed 60,000 vehicles by that year.

How about the claim that the state should work to decrease traffic counts on I-270, US 29 and I-95? First, the goal of the ICC was to relieve I-495 and other east-west roads. I-270, US 29 and I-95 run north-south. But reducing traffic on north-south roads is not a bad idea. I wrote an earlier blog posting on the need for an alternative north-south highway in DC in western Montgomery County. I am doubtful that Greater Greater Washington likes that idea. Promoting teleworking, and increasing cost-effective transit service including BRT is a great goal. But the reality is many residents will continue to be single-occupant drivers. And rather than waxing poetic about the 1920’s when people lived in denser communities we should realize that we have to live in today’s world.

I do agree with the author on one issue—the speed limit on the ICC is low. However, Maryland is already addressing this issue. The transportation authority has completed an initial evaluation of safety data and will complete a more detailed analysis before deciding whether to increase the speed limit. And the decision will come in the next three months. The likely top speed will be 60 miles per hour.

Why does GGW oppose toll roads? Toll roads recoup the full costs for travel, decrease demand over non-tolled roads, and in some cases generate money for transit. I suspect the decision-making is guided less by actual logic and more by the goal of preventing any new roads. This approach is mystifying because in the end it will actually hurt GGW.