Designed wisely, express lanes can reduce travel time, bring revenue

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 high-occupancy 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 off 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 to 40 percent in construction costs and 10 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.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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