The average rush-hour commuter will pay about $3.50 in daily round-trip tolls to use the new express lanes being built along Interstate 95 north of Baltimore, according to a rate structure approved by the Maryland Transportation Authority's board on Thursday.
Peak-hour rates will be set at 25 cents per mile along the 7-mile stretch for two-axle vehicles, with drivers paying 20 cents per mile during off-peak hours and 10 cents per mile during overnight hours.
Those rates fall at the low end of the toll range approved in September by the board, based on recommendations from MdTA staff, who considered consultants' reports on traffic volumes and the value of drivers' time.
The express toll lanes, which drivers will access using E-ZPass, are part of a billion-dollar project to rebuild portions of I-95 and multiple interchanges north of Baltimore, including those with I-695. The express lanes will run from the I-95 split with Interstate 895 to just north of White Marsh Boulevard.
The rate approval comes after a weeks-long public comment period, during which some residents expressed frustration with the idea of paying new tolls.
Bruce Gartner, executive secretary of the MdTA, said the agency took those concerns into consideration and acknowledged that many area motorists are unfamiliar with express toll lanes.
"It's going to be a matter of getting people used to a new concept in the Baltimore region," he said.
Other such facilities, including those in Virginia, have proven a draw for all kinds of commuters, not just the elite, as some local critics have charged, he said.
"Despite the propensity to call these 'Lexus lanes,' it's all types of vehicles using these lanes," he said.
Gartner also said "all drivers will benefit" from the lanes, as traffic on the highway's parallel, general-use lanes is expected to diminish during rush hours with the opening of the express lanes late next year.
The board unanimously approved the rate structure, which charges more for larger vehicles.
James Smith, the state's transportation secretary and chairman of the MdTA board, praised the MdTA staff for being transparent with the public throughout the toll pricing process, during a time when residents are already on edge from paying increased tolls elsewhere and a new gas tax.
"Let's be honest. I don't think people want to pay more for anything," Smith said. "It was an environment that was challenging because of other circumstances, and they handled it very professionally."
Gartner said the rates will be evaluated every several months based on traffic on the new lanes, and could theoretically be raised were traffic to become heavy on the express lanes.
However, the lanes are built based on traffic expectations 20 and 30 years from now, he said, and MdTA officials don't expect heavy use for several years.
Gartner said it's "very unlikely" that the rates will change any time soon.
Weekday peak hours are 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on southbound lanes and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on northbound lanes; 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in both directions on Saturdays; and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in both directions on Sundays.
Overnight pricing will be in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in both directions. Off-peak pricing will be in place during all other hours.