Speeding to where? [Editorial]

The Aegis

Gov. Larry Hogan’s recently announced plan to extend the express toll lanes along Interstate 95 from White Marsh into Harford County was greeted with generally positive responses locally.

County Executive Barry Glassman said having the express lanes running from the Route 24 interchange in Abingdon as far as I-895 would be good for Harford and the thousands of county residents who use I-95 daily to get to their jobs and back.

“For Harford County, anything that eases the congestion is good for our residents,” Glassman said the day Hogan announced the state will spend $461 million to ease congestion on the northern rim of the Baltimore Beltway.

The plan also would convert 19 miles of the interior shoulders in both directions on Interstate 695 into new travel lanes between I-70 and Parkville, a move state officials said would cut about 15 minutes off rush hour delays that can stretch an hour or more. Commuters also would see stoplights at on-ramps to help manage traffic flow, according to The Baltimore Sun. Construction could begin in late summer 2018, state officials said.

There are naysayers who will argue that spending half a billion dollars on highway construction won’t ease congestion in the end, but merely will encourage more people to drive. Or, in an age where more people are working closer to home – or from their homes – the money would be better spent elsewhere. Or, why not improve mass transit systems and get vehicles off the road, for safety and the environment’s sake?

History has shown that where Harford County is concerned, mass transit isn’t going to supplant the personal vehicle as the chosen method of getting to work, no matter how much the former is improved, added to or pushed by politicians, environmentalists and employers. Maybe in another generation or two those attitudes will change, but in the here and now, the overwhelming majority of Harford residents are going to keep getting behind the wheel.

We do, however, believe a few words of caution are in order. The existing express lanes along I-95 have been in operation long enough that state transportation officials should be able to quantify their impact on congestion and who is using them and when. Are these lanes widely used by people from Harford County, for instance? Certainly E-ZPass data can be mined to answer such questions.

Some county residents will no doubt be willing to shell out three bucks or whatever it costs them to speed up their daily commute, but express lanes also have the unintended consequence of balling up traffic when they end.

I-95 is already four lanes in each direction from White Marsh north to Route 24, but north of that interchange it drops to three lanes in each direction. Maybe, just maybe, Harford County residents would be much better served if the highway was widened to four lanes through the rest of the county, certainly at least to Route 155 in Havre de Grace.

Congestion may be eased, but it also might just be spread out farther by Hogan’s proposal for the extending express lanes. Either way, it will cost a lot of money to get that answer, not to mention inconveniencing Harford County commuters with construction related delays for however long it takes to build the lanes.

This is a case where more study is possibly needed. We’re not convinced our county’s residents, or the rest of the state’s, will be getting the best bang for their tax bucks with more express lanes that could very well end up being a dud.

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