The Logic Behind Governor Hogan’s Proposed Toll Express Lanes

Peter Samuel Oct 3, 2017

Governor Larry Hogan is thinking big with his plan to add toll express lanes to I-270, Maryland’s portion of the I-495 Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD -295), three of the most heavily congested highways in the state.


Toll lanes give people a choice—they can pay a market-priced variable toll and buy free-flow driving, or take their chances on tax-built ‘free’ lanes. Tolls benefit drivers in the free lanes, too, from reduced congestion in their lanes by the transfer of some traffic to the toll lanes.


By offering quicker and more predictable journeys on major routes, extra highway capacity also fosters access to more jobs, businesses, and services within tolerable commute times across a larger geographic area.


Freer-flowing traffic tends to be safer than the stop-and-go variety, with fewer rear-end collisions. And reduced fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions that can result are better for the environment. In addition to reducing hassle for visitors and residents, these projects should mitigate waste of time and resources from congestion, and improve quality of life for many people in the region.


For comparison, the twin two-lane format fits Virginia’s toll express lane facility on the state’s portion of the Beltway between the American Legion Bridge and the Springfield interchange. There’s a reversible toll lane facility on VA/I-95 from there south nearly to Fredericksburg. Toll lane work is designed and will see operations begin in two to three years on VA/I-66 and VA/I-395—creating a true regional network of premium service infrastructure.


Our governor’s proposed adoption of 2x2 lanes for Maryland is sound. Single toll lanes have been built in freeways in various cities around the country, often through conversion of a single HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane. But in a single lane there is no passing, and the speed is set by the slowest vehicle, belying the ‘express’ moniker. Also, a single lane on a major highway doesn’t add enough capacity to be worth the trouble. Twin lanes each direction, as proposed by Hogan, work much better.


The big challenge will be getting these projects designed and built. The state legislature has to be persuaded, and three county governments need to be on board. Local groups will have concerns, ranging from obstructionism to misconceptions that extra lanes don’t relieve congestion to valid issues that deserve to be accommodated.


The $9 billion cost mentioned in the governor’s announcement is likely a very rough, ballpark estimate. Sensibly, the state is requesting a variety of proposals from the private sector, as it did recently with $100 million for short-term congestion relief on I-270.


There will need to be traffic and revenue projections to work out how far likely toll revenues will go in servicing debt incurred and providing a return on capital invested.


Most toll lane projects in congested metro areas generate sufficient revenue to cover the cost of operations and maintenance and provide a substantial operating surplus to service capital, whether issued as state bonds or private equity. A few are completely self-sufficient financially, like the country’s first: the 1990s-era 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, California.


Some toll lanes projects only need external financial support for associated improvements to the ‘free’ road infrastructure. For example, when you build extra toll lanes, you usually have to rebuild overpasses, and in the rebuilding they can be improved to serve non-tolled traffic better too. Other toll lanes need substantial non-toll financing, although toll revenues reduce that.


Hogan plans approaching the project design world of big contractors to get proposals for a combination of features and financing, which will hopefully produce good designs for the money, and be quicker and more innovative than traditional in-house project planning.


It is unclear whether or how the projects will be divided up. They are big enough as three individual projects, so there would be three separate procurements. Indeed, some might benefit from further subdivision. For example, I-270 north of Shady Grove and I-370 is a very different animal from I-270 south to the Beltway. The two portions could be made separate projects with a focus on the very different constraints and possibilities of each, and the Beltway toll lanes could be divided into three substantial segments (with I-95 and I-270 marking off boundaries). That would make six projects.


Larger and more comprehensive is not always better. Splitting it up into, say six, could attract more bidders and allow the selected managers to be more focused on difficulties specific to their project than one or even three.


Also unclear is the extent of privatization. Hogan appears to leave open how far the toll lanes would be managed by a private partner in a P3, versus run by regular State Highway Administration crews. There are many different ways to handle responsibilities and costs and allocate risks and revenues—an issue likely to be hashed out with the legislature.


At the level of federal permitting, designs that are built largely within existing rights of way find permitting much easier, often receiving an expedited FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) such as that obtained for the governor’s $100 million I-270 Corridor Innovative Congestion Management project. But four-lane additions will almost certainly come squarely within the full NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process in which alternative schemes are developed in some detail with lengthy public hearings.


An even bigger challenge than physically accommodating the four extra lanes proper is gaining the right of way and designing the connections with intersecting roads. On all of the Beltway and the southern section of I-270, the toll lanes are likely to need their own dedicated ramps at interchanges. That eliminates the need for toll lane users to weave their way from an outside entry lane across all the free lanes to get to the toll lanes, and to repeat multiple lane-changing when approaching their desired exit. Central on- and off- interchange ramps make for a mini toll road within a freeway.


There is the possibility with such a format to place interchanges at different places than the free-lanes interchanges, as occurs at some points along VA-495 Express Lanes. This helps spread traffic on local roads as well as provide more direct connections.


In widening the main lanes, pavement can be made continuous between the toll and free lanes, providing flexibility with restriping to modify traffic movements, whether for maintenance, handling an accident, or managing a larger weather or security emergency.


A major criticism of this project is that higher priority should be given to creating a second beltway—at least a half beltway shaped like an inverted U—by extending the Inter County Connector MD-200 in both directions: clockwise over MD-295 to John Hanson Hwy or US-50 by either MD-193 or MD-197, providing a new route to Annapolis and the Eastern shore, and extending the ICC counter-clockwise or south of westerly from I-270 to a new Potomac River crossing and a short connection to VA-28 or Sully Road.


The latter would provide a direct link between western Fairfax and Loudoun County and northern Montgomery and Frederick counties and a new connection for northern Virginia residents to BWI, Baltimore, and points north. For Frederick and northern Montgomery County residents and businesses it would provide new connectivity to the Dulles Airport area and Fairfax and Loudoun counties. They could be 2x3-lane full toll roads with a minimum of interchanges because they traverse largely rural land.


Compared to widening the Beltway, construction would be straightforward, quick, and inexpensive (the Potomac is easy to bridge here compared to the deep, wide canyon under the American Legion Bridge. Taking pressure off the lower portion of I-270 and the western portion of the Beltway, they would allow that widening project to be deferred some years and possibly scaled back by a lane each direction.