The Misguided Efforts to Derail Maryland’s I-270 and I-495 Toll Projects
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The Misguided Efforts to Derail Maryland’s I-270 and I-495 Toll Projects

Drivers would get congestion relief, transit riders would get new high-quality bus service, and taxpayers wouldn't have to fund the projects.

Infrastructure projects where almost everyone gets a win are, unfortunately, relatively few and far between. But that’s exactly what the I-270 and I-495 Maryland managed lanes projects are: Drivers get congestion relief; transit riders get new high-quality bus service; and, taxpayers don’t have to pay for the project unless they choose to use the lanes—since drivers using the managed lanes will pay tolls that fund the entire cost of the project. 

But some members of the Maryland General Assembly aren’t looking at transportation improvements, especially if Governor Larry Hogan gets a win. Unwilling to accept the Board of Works bipartisan decision to proceed with the project they have introduced 11 different bills aimed at killing the project. 

The Washington Post editorial board described the project and political fight this way:

“The plan’s opponents — local activists and elected officials who seemed determined to prolong gridlock for hundreds of thousands of highway commuters — have finally fought Mr. Hogan to a draw. On Wednesday, the state’s Board of Public Works approved a stripped-down version of Mr. Hogan’s blueprint, one that does a lot, but not nearly enough, to keep daily bottlenecks from getting much worse on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.”

Northern Virginia Democrats, who are most familiar with managed lanes, have gone on record supporting the expansion. Public opinion polling shows a majority of Maryland residents support managed lanes. 

Maryland’s portion of I-495 and I-270 has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, which is hurting the state’s economy.

Traffic congestion is just one part of the equation, but it is interesting to note that in the first 10 months of 2019, Northern Virginia gained 19,500 jobs while suburban Maryland gained 200. Maryland has two fortune 500 companies. Fairfax County, VA, a county with one-sixth of Maryland’s population has 10 Fortune 500 companies. 

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has tried to be flexible with this project. When opposition emerged to managed lanes on parts of I-495 due to the amount of land needed, the administration resequenced the project phases. When Democrats wanted a guarantee for transit funding, the Hogan administration provided it. 

Since opponents of the managed lanes don’t have the support needed to kill the project outright, they appear to be trying to impose so many regulatory barriers and hurdles that the managed lanes become infeasible. Assembly members have filed bills that would ban nighttime construction, require local county consent, prohibit tolling, eliminate property acquisition, and artificially cap tolls so that the toll revenues would not be enough to fund the project. 

HB 84 would prohibit the nighttime construction of the lanes. Most major highway construction projects feature nighttime roadwork and land closings as a way to minimize disruptions during peak commute times and reduce costs. Given the existing levels of extreme congestion, closing the lanes during the day would cause travel nightmares, crush the economy and stoke public outrage.

HB 258 would prohibit the construction of any toll lanes in Prince Georges County unless the local delegation approves it. Interstate highways are designed for Interstate commerce and they are owned by the states. While local government sentiment is important, any decision on where to build and how to fund the roadway should be left to the state government. 

HB 292 would prohibit Maryland from building any new toll lane or toll road. Tolling is considered by many the ideal funding stream for highways because only the drivers who use the toll lanes pay for them. In this case, the other, non-tolled lanes, will remain ‘free’ for drivers. Meanwhile, mass transit vehicles and vanpools will be able to ride for free in the free-flowing managed lanes.

If Maryland looked to raise the gas tax to pay for a project like this, every driver, regardless of whether they use the lanes or not, would pay for it. And raising the gas tax enough to fund this and other needed road projects is an unrealistically tough political lift. 

HB 299 would prohibit the state from acquiring any property needed to build the project. Acquiring private land is usually the last resort for state departments of transportation and they’re already required to follow existing laws.

HB 1220 would cap tolls at 10 cents per mile. Variable-tolls are used in busy urban areas to help manage congestion. During rush hours, tolls may need to be $1.00 per mile to provide a congestion-free option for cars and express buses. HB 1120’s supporters have dubbed the bill the ‘No Lexus Lanes Act’ because they believe that wealthy drivers are the primary beneficiaries of toll lanes. Yet research shows that the five most common vehicles using the managed lanes are the Ford F-150, Toyota Camry, Toyota Corolla, Honda Accord and Honda Civic.

The I-270 and I-495 managed lanes are the ultimate win-win-win. There is no other alternative that can reduce traffic congestion and improve transit at no cost to taxpayers who don’t use the lanes. If opponents succeed at killing this project, Maryland’s mobility would continue to worsen and the state’s economy would suffer.