Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday proposed a $9 billion plan to add express toll lanes to the routes of three of Maryland’s most congested highways — the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway, the I-270 spur connecting Frederick to D.C., and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway between the two cities.
“This problem has been marring the quality of life of Maryland citizens for decades,” Hogan said at a news conference. “Today, we are finally going to do something about it.”
The highway expansions would add two express toll lanes each way to roughly 100 miles of roadways in Maryland’s densely populated central region. Existing lanes on each road would remain free to drivers.
The massive undertaking involves persuading the federal government to give the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, now controlled by the National Park Service, to the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The price tag for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway would be $1.4 billion. It’s dwarfed by the size of the combined $7.6 billion project to widen I-495 and I-270. Those new lanes would be built and maintained by private companies through public-private partnerships, or PPPs, in what the governor said would be the largest highway public-private partnerships in North America.
“This is breathtaking,” said Robert Poole, a toll policy expert and director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank based in California. Poole said Hogan’s project would be the largest express lanes project in U.S. history.
“This is a very big deal,” Poole said. “The tolling community, the PPP community, the express-lane community, will be going gaga.”
Hogan, a Republican, said he has already met with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke about transferring the parkway and instructed state staffers to “finalize the details.”
The Interior Department did not confirm that the federal government intends to hand off the road.
“Secretary Zinke and Governor Hogan recently had a wide ranging conversation about a number of issues of mutual interest,” Zinke spokesman Alex Hinson said in an e-mail. “No decisions related to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made during that meeting.”
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she supports the public-private-parternship model but still has a lot of questions about how the state could execute a $9 billion project without a major contribution from state taxpayers.
She said investing so heavily in roads also has the potential to strangle the revenue stream for other transportation projects, like mass transit.
“Many will be excited, I’m sure,” McIntosh said. “I’m skeptical because I know the devils in the details here. … It's important that people know that they're not going to drive on [the lanes] unless they pay.”
Hogan emphasized the benefits of cutting down congestion in the region, which typically ranks among the top-10 worst metro areas in the country.
He predicted the “three massive, unprecedented projects,” which he dubbed the Traffic Relief Plan “will be absolutely transformative and will help Maryland citizens go about their daily lives in a more efficient and safer manner.”
AAA Mid-Atlantic applauded Hogan for offering “much needed relief to the commuters, who utilize some of the most congested roadways in our state,” Ragina Cooper Averella, a spokeswoman for the regional driver’s advocacy group, said in a statement.
"This Traffic Relief Plan is a significant commitment to improving traffic conditions for millions of motorists and those who travel through Maryland," she said.
Smart growth advocates harshly criticized Hogan's plan as "failing" Maryland, calling it a costly, disruptive band-aid solution that will ultimately increase traffic on side roads. Expanding highways lures more drivers to those roads, they said, and the roadways eventually will be congested again.
“It's not a lasting solution to transportation problems,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He added that expanding only the major highways wouldn’t do anything to accommodate traffic flowing onto them.
“Cars don't just teleport to these highways.” he said. “They travel through neighborhoods. They travel on arterial roads.”
The National Park Service drew a similar conclusion after Congress mandated a study in 2012 about whether to expand the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which is technically federal parkland. The study found that widening the road to six lanes “will likely result in levels of traffic congestion similar to those experienced today.”
The study was conducted with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the park service, the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation.
“No general public consensus was identified on either the need or the desirability of undertaking any potential widening option,” the study found.
The method Hogan proposed to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270 is similar to the way Virginia built high-occupancy toll lanes, known as HOT lanes, on its portion of the beltway and elsewhere in the state.
Such public-private partnerships, in which the private sector helps build roads in return for future toll revenue, have become increasingly common. That’s how the state is building the $2 billion Purple Line light-rail project in the Washington suburbs.
The companies that win bids for I-495 and I-270 projects would finance, design, build, operate and maintain those express toll lanes, and share some of the revenue with the state.
Hogan’s proposal entails adding four toll lanes to the entirety of the Capital Beltway in Maryland, from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Prince George’s County to the American Legion Bridge in Montgomery County, a distance of about 40 miles.
He also proposed adding four toll lanes to I-270, from its connection to the Capital Beltway to where it meets I-70 in the city of Frederick, which is about 30 miles.
Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson said rush hour on each of these roads amounts to seven hours every weekday. The congestion affects 260,000 motorists daily on I-270, 240,000 motorists daily on I-495 and 120,000 motorists each day on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
It could be years before the toll lanes are up and running.
It will be at least six months before private companies submit bids to build the lanes on I-495 and I-270, according to a timeline laid out by a Hogan spokeswoman. The state would then have to select a bid and negotiate a contract, as well as execute environmental studies and potentially fend off opponents of widening the highways. Construction on the Purple Line, for example, was delayed for at least a year because of court challenges.
Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the toll lanes on the parkway would be paid for with money generated from tolls on the other two highways.
“The governor is extremely aggressive when it comes to transportation improvements and will be pushing to move the projects along as quickly as possible,” she said.
An earlier version of this article quoted a state official who incorrectly said Maryland would need to buy the BW Parkway from the federal government. The state wants it transferred at no cost.