By Jake Stern
3:21 PM EDT, June 22, 2011
After hearing about the expected rises in tolls across Maryland, I couldn't help but think that Baltimore was hard hit while other areas of the state remained relatively unscathed. I'm talking, among other places, about D.C.'s northwestern suburbs. Montgomery and Howard counties are two of the richest counties in the U.S. and yet, somehow, there are no planned toll increases for them; in fact, before the construction of the Intercounty Connector, they had no toll roads at all. These areas of Maryland are the places where the residents and commuters can most easily afford increased tolls. And, as for Montgomery County, it is also the one of the few places in Maryland where people actually can choose how to get to work.
It seems as though Maryland has deemed it acceptable to not only foster but financially support a lifestyle of suburban living for the upper and upper middle class outside of Washington D.C. Indeed, if you drove from Silver Spring to Bethesda on 495, you would encounter no tolls. But to drive a similar distance from Highlandtown to Port Covington — unless you went the long way, through Baltimore City on surface streets — you would have to cough up $2, soon $4, and eventually $6 worth of tolls, each way.
Tunnels and bridges offer a convenient opportunity to collect tolls, but they should not be the only places where such highway user fees are collected. It's a way of making commuters into Baltimore pay for the geography of the city.
Modern toll plazas should be placed on heavily traveled roadways into or out of desirable destinations. Such a model is used on the highways of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. This successfully employed principle suggests that the strongest commercial and residential markets should shoulder the burden of paying for infrastructure. In fact, most major cities have tolls, particularly where interstate travel is involved.
Which city is the notable exception? Washington. Just like New York or Philadelphia, Washington's job market depends on interstate travel; it also has highways, bridges, overpasses, underpasses and a substantial highway infrastructure that carries thousands of people to their places of work every day. The only thing D.C. lacks is a major bridge or tunnel. That shouldn't stop the state of Maryland from collecting tolls to maintain the infrastructure that leads to the city. It's time this commuter haven was tapped; Maryland residents of the D.C. area need to start to pay their fair share.
But it's not just about tolls. It's the principle that those receiving the benefits should pay the cost. The expansion of I-95 north of Baltimore cost a whopping $1 billion, a huge amount. However, the ICC cost $2.5 billion, so much that its own tolls won't be sufficient to cover its price. Even though the I-95 expansion cost less than half as much, Baltimore's commuters are expected to pay the price of rising maintenance costs for the state's aging infrastructure and for Montgomery County's new highway.
Current tolls on the ICC range anywhere from 60 cents to $1.45, with an additional fee for those without an E-ZPass. The highest toll on the ICC, in effect only during peak hours, is a pittance and needs to be raised in lieu of or in addition to every other proposed toll increase.
While Baltimoreans are expected to pay the cost of the D.C. suburbs' public works projects, it's also worth noting that Montgomery County enjoys access to 11 Washington Metro stations — the same as the total number of metro stations in the entire city of Baltimore. However, unlike Baltimore's metro users, Montgomery County's have access to an entire Metro system with many destinations throughout the D.C. area. Montgomery County also boasts seven MARC stations, compared to Baltimore City's three. These transit stations give Montgomery County residents options to avoid tolls, something many commuting into Baltimore City do not have.
Perhaps some people cling to the argument that Washington's traffic is terrible and that's reason enough to not collect tolls, as tolls slow down the flow of cars. However, it should be noted that a well-positioned toll system might, in time, actually provide funding for infrastructure improvements and mass transit initiatives aimed at easing congestion. Most importantly, tolls to enter Washington, D.C. might deter wasteful and costly regional commutes — the very same commutes that are responsible for the rising maintenance costs to which we can attribute the need for increased tolls on our highways.
Jake Stern lives in Federal Hill. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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