It's not much of a surprise that the Maryland State Highway Administration is again looking at making I-95 wider in Harford County from the Route 24 interchange south to the Baltimore County line and beyond.
The state has dozens of projects in the long-term planning phase at any given moment and, depending on the politics of the moment, any such project can be jumped to the head of the line, or bumped back. The latest series of I-95 construction projects that have included major upgrades of the Route 24, White Marsh Boulevard and Baltimore Beltway interchanges, as well as the addition of extra lanes, was a low priority early in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, then it suddenly became a high priority and construction was begun.
Initially, the project included the addition of toll lanes for people looking to get around traffic jams – critically referred to as Lexus lanes – from the Route 24 interchange area south to the Baltimore Beltway. Then, this part of the project suddenly went to the back of the funding line, at least in part. Now the Lexus lanes are under construction only from White Marsh Boulevard south to Baltimore.
It may well come to pass that the wider I-95 project initially proposed for the Edgewood and Joppa areas will come back into favor sooner rather than later. Then again, it could well remain on the list for a decades-from-now project.
The State Highway Administration has long been governed by an odd mix of sound policy and petty politics. Elected officials know road work is a visible expression of a government at work, so those with political clout are generally able to get key projects pushed to the front of the funding pack. This happens even as the agency itself maintains a rather extensive collection of projects that, from a planning perspective, are darn near shovel ready.
Given this reality, it is easy to conclude that the Lexus lanes that will open in a year or two have been given a financial boost by the way the Baltimore Beltway interchange with I-95 ended up being built. I-95 at the Beltway has been a bottleneck that causes rush hour traffic jams for decades because the highway narrowed from four lanes to three to cross the Beltway overpass.
When the massive reconstruction project was undertaken, it seemed a widening of I-95 at this critical spot would be a natural part of the enterprise. It was not.
Instead, the lanes for the hoi polloi have long since been completed and opened and construction continues on the Lexus lanes. The critical overpass carries three lanes of I-95 traffic over the Beltway, giving the highway the same capacity as what had been in place for decades prior to the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars ostensibly to increase the roadway's capacity.
Granted, the capacity will be substantially increased when the Lexus lanes open; indeed, the capacity will double, as there will be three such lanes in each direction.
And, thanks to what was either a strange coincidence or a disturbing bit of clandestine plotting, the new lanes will have plenty of people who are covetous of the prospect of moving quickly around the lingering I-95 bottleneck at the Beltway. Given that the bottleneck has been retained for non-tollpayers, it's likely the new lanes will generate a good deal of revenue.
Maybe the prospect of this new revenue stream has prompted the state to look anew at plans for toll lanes extending into Harford County, as there might be more money available to build them in the relatively near future.