Transportation debate in governor's race about roads, too

Last week's brouhaha over paying for the Red Line and Purple Line has clarified the differences between Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on transit. But it has obscured an equally large gap over spending on highway construction.

Governor Ehrlich recognized correctly that the state cannot afford to build enough roads to eliminate traffic jams. His solution was to build "express toll lanes" so that a wealthy minority can buy their way out of congestion. By design, the tolls must be set higher than most people can afford — otherwise the majority of drivers will use the express lanes, and they will jam up just like the free lanes.

The problem with express toll lanes in Maryland is that the revenue from the tolls is less than the cost of construction. So money has to come from somewhere else, inevitably from people who can't afford to use the new lanes themselves.

As the Ehrlich administration planned the widening of I-95 north of Baltimore, the tolls weren't even going to cover the cost of extra ramps needed to separate toll and free lanes. The tolls weren't being charged to raise money. Their only purpose was to prevent middle- and lower-income drivers from using the road they pay for.

When Governor O'Malley came into office, the I-95 toll lanes were already under construction, and it was too late to stop them entirely. The new administration did not move to limit the damage as quickly as it should have, but it did stanch the fiscal hemorrhage by scaling back expensive interchanges.

The great advantage of projects like the Red Line and Purple Line is that they enable everyone — not just a wealthy minority — to bypass the traffic jams. But clearly we will continue to build roads too. It's unfair to ask average drivers to pay for toll lanes for the affluent. The transportation issue in November's election is about both roads and transit.

Ben Ross, Bethesda

The writer is president of the Action Committee for Transit.

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