The controversial construction of express toll lanes up the center of a congested, eight-mile stretch of Interstate 95 just north of Baltimore is set to conclude Dec. 6, when the lanes will open to traffic.
Their launch will bring to an end the bulk of construction on a larger, nearly $1.1 billion project to reconstruct the entire section of the highway, its overpasses and interchanges, including with Interstate 695.
Aimed at relieving bottlenecks and improving safety, the work nonetheless added to commuter headaches for nearly a decade. An average of about 177,000 drivers a day use the corridor.
"It was a tremendous challenge," said Dave LaBella, the Maryland Transportation Authority's project manager since 2006, of completing the work while I-95 remained open to traffic. "It required coordinating work hours, lane closure schedules, mobilization, all the movement of equipment — and all the while maintaining that traffic, largely commuter traffic, on every weekday."
Some work, including on the I-695 interchange, will continue, LaBella said, but commuters should expect much of the roadside activity to subside.
Between Dec. 6 and Dec. 12, the toll lanes — two in each direction — will be free to use, the MdTA is expected to announce Monday. The toll-free week will give drivers an opportunity to become familiar with the new traffic patterns and the agency a chance to test its tolling equipment, officials said.
After Dec. 12, use of the lanes — which run from Interstate 895 to just beyond White Marsh Boulevard — will cost round-trip, peak-hour commuters about $3.50 per day to use.
Drivers will not have to pass through toll booths, as the lanes are all electronic, like those on the Intercounty Connector, in the state's Washington suburbs. Users will pay via E-ZPass, or receive bills in the mail — at a higher price than the E-ZPass cost.
The project has drawn mixed reviews from residents in Harford County, Baltimore and beyond for years, including complaints about paying for a new road even after recent hikes in other tolls and the state's gas tax.
Several residents said they still feel torn, or even downright opposed to the lanes.
Baxter Smith, 69, of Roland Park, said he has seen similar tolled lanes go unused in places like Miami and Los Angeles, even when parallel free lanes are jammed with traffic.
"The experience that I have had using them in rush hour periods is they tended to be a nuisance," he said. "I wish them luck. I hope it works out OK."
Marc Bass, a Reisterstown resident who is retired and on a fixed income, said he resents the fact the wealthy will benefit, while those without disposable income will have to suffer through congestion as they always have.
"I have a fundamental problem with toll roads. I don't care where they are. That's precious land," he said. "If they're going to build roads, they should benefit everyone and not just people who are willing to pay up."
He also doesn't like that people without E-ZPass will have to pay $2.75 for a one way, peak-hour trip, compared to the $1.75 cost for E-ZPass users.
"Only the elite can justify using it," Bass said.
Officials at MdTA, which began planning the lanes in 2003, said the dual nature of the tolled and non-tolled lanes will benefit everyone. As more drivers take to the toll lanes, congestion will ease everywhere, they said.
"If a driver is looking for that reliability to get to an appointment on time, to get to a flight at the BWI Airport on time or to pick up their child from a soccer game on time, they'll have that choice," said Kelly Melhem, an MdTA spokeswoman.
Construction of the express lanes accounted for about a third of the project's $1.1 billion cost. The MdTA, which operates all of the state's toll facilities, including at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, funds all of its projects with toll revenues and bonds. The funding from the I-95 lanes will be pooled with revenue from other tolling facilities.
Ragina Cooper Averella, a spokeswoman for driver advocacy organization AAA Mid-Atlantic and a Harford County resident, said she understands people's concerns but is excited for the lanes to open.
"The reality is the use of those express toll lanes will help reduce congestion, even in the lanes that are free," she said.
Shaun Plotts, 35, a veterinary technician who lives in Bel Air and works in Baltimore County, said he has always avoided the I-95 corridor, taking "scenic routes" instead. The express lanes, especially given the cost, won't change that, he said.
"Money's always an issue, and that adds up if you're paying it every day," he said.
By 2025, MdTA expects the number of daily vehicles on the highway to increase to nearly 200,000, and LaBella said the toll lanes were designed with future traffic in mind.
In the beginning, he said, commuters may see "moderate" use of the toll lanes during peak hours, and even less use during off-peak hours.
"Typically with these types of systems there is a 3-to-5-year what we call 'ramp up period,'" he said.
To consider how the corridor has evolved in the last decade, he said, makes him marvel at the little bit of paving and odd jobs now left to complete.
"It has been surreal over the course of time to be able to experience and take part in and witness, for instance, the 695 interchange be completely reconfigured to a four-level interchange, and to stand up on top of the top level of that interchange without traffic on it and to witness literally a dozen cranes on site and erecting steel beams, and being able to witness the massive pours of concrete for the foundations," he said. "It's been quite an experience."
Having watched it all as a commuter, AAA's Cooper Averella agreed.
"I've lived in Harford County most of my life, so I'm very, very familiar with the congestion in that area," she said. "That corridor has been notorious for congestion as long as I've been driving, and I think it will be welcome relief when the express lanes open."
What the new express toll lanes will cost
E-ZPass rates for cars
Video toll rates for cars
Southbound Peak Periods
M-F: 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Sat: Noon to 2 p.m.
Sun: 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Northbound Peak Periods
M-F: 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Sat: Noon to 2 p.m.
Sun: 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Daily: 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
All other times