Views vary on ex­press lanes

Some see ben­e­fits for driv­ers; oth­ers worry about more pol­lu­tion

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Colin Camp­bell

When the state opened eight miles of ex­press toll lanes on In­ter­state 95 in 2014, driv­ers ques­tioned whether they would im­prove the flow of traf­fic or even be af­ford­able for most mo­torists.

Now nearly 25,000 mo­torists use the lane each day, pay­ing a pre­mium to drive through lighter traf­fic be­tween Bal­ti­more and White Marsh and di­vert­ing about 12 per­cent of the ve­hi­cle load from the free travel lanes, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

The toll lanes gen­er­ated $9 mil­lion in rev­enue for the state last year.

Now Gov. Larry Ho­gan wants to ex­pand the pro­gram, spend­ing $9 bil­lion to add hun­dreds of miles of such lanes on the Cap­i­tal Belt­way, In­ter­state 270 be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Fred­er­ick, and the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton Park­way to de­crease conges­tion and col­lect more money.

Ex­press lane pro­grams across the coun­try

have had vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

Crit­ics say the so-called Lexus lanes add to pol­lu­tion and do noth­ing to ad­dress a lack of eq­ui­table trans­porta­tion in the state.

Pro­po­nents say if the lanes are de­signed wisely, they can gen­er­ate new state rev­enue and cut travel time not just for the driv­ers who pay to use them, but to those who stick to the free lanes.

“The gov­er­nor’s plan is a real-world pro­gram to ad­dress the kinds of sti­fling conges­tion we are see­ing in the Cap­i­tal re­gion,” Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Pete Rahn said. “Our in­ten­tion is that this is go­ing to be done right and it is go­ing to be done fast.”

Rahn said the ad­di­tion of ex­press toll lanes doesn’t con­tra­dict Ho­gan’s 2015 ini­tia­tive to re­duce tolls on the Bay Bridge and else­where, but in­stead pro­vides driv­ers an op­tion.

Ho­gan’s plan mir­rors the lanes Vir­ginia has built with a pri­vate part­ner along its part of the Cap­i­tal Belt­way and south on I-95. Vir­ginia has spent about $6 bil­lion on those lanes.

Vir­ginia’s I-95 ex­press lanes aver­aged about 49,000 trips per day last year, and its lanes on the Cap­i­tal Belt­way saw an av­er­age of 46,000 trips per day, ac­cord­ing to Transur­ban, the con­trac­tor that built and main­tains them.

The lanes gen­er­ated about $163 mil­lion in rev­enue for the com­pany, which went to taxes, main­te­nance, debt pay­ments and other costs, but re­sulted in a loss of more than $36 mil­lion, Transur­ban spokesman Mike McGurk said. The com­pany ex­pects to make money even­tu­ally as vol­ume grows and it pays off its debt.

Vir­ginia uses what are known as high­oc­cu­pancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, with pric­ing that in­creases as traf­fic vol­ume rises, but is free for ve­hi­cles car­ry­ing three or more peo­ple. HOT lanes en­cour­age car­pool­ing and bet­ter re­duce high­way conges­tion, Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Aubrey Layne said.

Vir­ginia’s HOT lanes di­vert an av­er­age of nearly 20 per­cent of traf­fic from the free lanes, Layne said. He said he would en­cour­age Mary­land to use HOT lanes in­stead of sim­ple toll lanes.

To use HOT lanes, driv­ers ei­ther pay on a reg­u­lar E-ZPass or use an E-ZPass Flex, which al­lows them to switch it to “HOV mode” and ride free. Traf­fic cam­eras help of­fi­cials en­force the oc­cu­pancy rules.

Layne said the free pas­sage for car­pool­ers makes HOT lanes more eq­ui­table. The state of­fers more than a dozen pro­grams to match driv­ers and rid­ers to help fill cars.

“For ev­ery­one who chooses to put ad­di­tional peo­ple in their car or to pay as a solo driver, we free up space in the free lanes,” Layne said. “HOT lanes are about mov­ing more peo­ple through a cor­ri­dor.”

Mary­land hasn’t de­cided whether to use HOT lanes, Rahn said. The state has re­quested in­for­ma­tion from in­ter­ested con­trac­tors, he said, and will de­cide how to struc­ture the lanes based on the re­sponses.

Wes Guck­ert is pres­i­dent and CEO of The Traf­fic Group, a traf­fic engi­neer­ing firm based in White Marsh. He said Cap­i­tal Belt­way driv­ers can use the HOT lanes in Vir­ginia to re­duce a ride of 18 to 50 min­utes to less than 10 min­utes.

He said the HOT lanes also re­duced travel times in the free lanes by about a quar­ter.

“What has been doc­u­mented as close as North­ern Vir­ginia is that those in the gen­eral-pur­pose lanes are see­ing a huge re­duc­tion in their drive times,” Guck­ert said.

Del. Pamela G. Bei­dle ac­knowl­edges the prob­lems caused by the re­gion’s grid­lock. But the Linthicim Demo­crat, who chairs the Mo­tor Ve­hi­cle and Trans­porta­tion Sub­com­mit­tee in the House of Del­e­gates, isn’t con­vinced that ex­press toll lanes are the so­lu­tion.

“If we just build more lanes, we just cre­ate more traf­fic,” Bei­dle said. “What we re­ally need is pub­lic trans­porta­tion to get peo­ple to the job cen­ters.”

She ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that ex­press lanes would ben­e­fit all com­muters.

“The peo­ple that have money to spend can get to work faster than the av­er­age per­son who doesn’t have that money to spend ev­ery day to get to work,” Bei­dle said.

Dru Sch­midt-Perkins, CEO of the en­vi­ron­men­tal and smart-growth group 1,000 Friends of Mary­land, op­poses Ho­gan’s plan. She points out that trans­porta­tion is among the top causes of green­house gas emis­sions in the United States.

Ex­pand­ing high­ways doesn’t just add to air pol­lu­tion, she said. It also ig­nores the needs of the large num­ber of Mary­land res­i­dents who can’t af­ford to drive.

“We have seen no ev­i­dence that this is the best use of trans­porta­tion dol­lars to solve crit­i­cal trans­porta­tion prob­lems in this state,” Sch­midt-Perkins said. “En­vi­ron­men­tally, so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally, it’s a bad deal.”

But ex­pand­ing roads is po­lit­i­cally pop­u­lar and, the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gues, nec­es­sary.

Rahn said ex­press toll lanes are more of­ten used on oc­ca­sion by par­ents hur­ry­ing to their chil­dren's day care or soc­cer games than as a daily com­mut­ing so­lu­tion.

“Th­ese are Mom-and-Dad lanes more than this idea of Lexus lanes,” he said. “What they’ve seen from around the coun­try is peo­ple won’t typ­i­cally use them all the time. They use them based on their cir­cum­stances.”

Mak­ing such lanes work well will de­pend on the de­tails, an­a­lysts say. Ev­ery­thing from the lane’s de­sign to the struc­ture of the pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship must be de­vel­oped wisely.

When pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships are ex­e­cuted well, Guck­ert said, they can of­fer states less risk and quicker con­struc­tion.

In such ar­range­ments, the com­pany gen­er­ally as­sumes at least some of the debt and risk, pro­tect­ing the state gov­ern­ment. Con­tracts can in­clude penal­ties for con­struc­tion delays.

Pri­vately con­structed roads gen­er­ally save gov­ern­ments about 15 per­cent to 40 per­cent in con­struc­tion costs and 10 per­cent to 25 per­cent in main­te­nance costs, Guck­ert said.

Paul Lewis is vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy at the Eno Cen­ter for Trans­porta­tion, a trans­porta­tion re­search in­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton. He said con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions can make or break an ex­press lane project.

Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia, for ex­am­ple, was “ham­strung” by a non-com­pete clause in an ex­press lane con­tract that prevented any ca­pac­ity im­prove­ments to the ad­ja­cent gen­eral-pur­pose lanes, he said. It had to pay $207.5 mil­lion in 2003 to buy out that clause.

Lewis said Mary­land should de­ter­mine how much it would cost to de­sign and build the lanes in-house be­fore so­lic­it­ing pri­vate com­pa­nies.

“If [con­trac­tors] know it’s go­ing to be” a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship, he said, “they’re less in­clined to put up a com­pet­i­tive of­fer.”

Gang-Len Chang is di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Traf­fic Safety and Op­er­a­tions at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land. He has con­ducted traf­fic re­search for the State High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The suc­cess of an ex­press lane, he said, de­pends on a de­sign that pre­vents bot­tle­necks at the end. He said the state should de­sign sep­a­rate exit ramps for ex­press lanes, or ex­pand ex­ist­ing ramps to ac­com­mo­date more traf­fic vol­ume.

Even length­en­ing green lights at the end of ramps can keep traf­fic from back­ing up, he said.

Oth­er­wise, he said, “you may re­duce conges­tion on the main line for a short time pe­riod, but they still have to get off, and when they get off the high­way, you still have a prob­lem.”

Such mea­sures en­sure that any re­duc­tions in travel time en­joyed by those us­ing the tolled lanes don’t come at the ex­pense of those who can’t af­ford to use them, he said.

“We have to con­sider the po­ten­tial so­cial in­equity is­sue,” Chang said.

Ho­gan’s plan for the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton Park­way is con­tin­gent upon the Na­tional Park Ser­vice turn­ing own­er­ship of the road over to Mary­land. The De­part­ment of the In­te­rior, which over­sees the parks ser­vice, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Chang said Mary­land is bet­ter equipped than the park ser­vice to over­see the ex­press­way. State troop­ers can clear a two-car crash from I-95 in as lit­tle as a half hour, he said, whereas it might take the U.S. Park Po­lice twice as long.

“It has be­come an op­er­a­tional is­sue,” he said. “It’s def­i­nitely a good idea to have [Mary­land] man­age the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton Park­way.”

Lewis said Mary­land should not rely solely on ex­press lanes to solve conges­tion is­sues. By them­selves, he said, they rarely do.

Lewis sug­gested that Ho­gan ex­am­ine the en­tire trans­porta­tion net­work and scale back his pro­posal from four ex­press lanes to two on each of the high­ways to re­duce the im­pact on sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

“This cuts through one of the dens­est parts of the state,” he said. “One lane in each di­rec­tion could prob­a­bly be done at sig­nif­i­cantly less cost, and still pro­vide ben­e­fits from a mo­bil­ity stand­point.”

Toll lanes as a con­cept are “not all good, and not all bad,” Lewis said. But they must be used wisely to com­ple­ment other conges­tion so­lu­tions.

“It’s not go­ing to solve ev­ery­thing,” he said. “Any state that’s tak­ing this on has to be very care­ful and very strate­gic about how this fits into their broader trans­porta­tion plan.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The I-95 ex­press toll lanes, shown at right from the Ken­wood Av­enue over­pass, have been used by 25,000 mo­torists daily.

SUN IN­VES­TI­GATES

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