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To finance massive Maryland highway project, an eye-popping toll. Is this really the best option? | COMMENTARY

Traffic along interchanges that link the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Bethesda. File. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post).
Traffic along interchanges that link the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270 in Bethesda. File. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post). (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

For those who have followed Gov. Larry Hogan’s long crusade to widen portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County, with two express toll lanes in each direction built and managed by a public-private partnership (or P3), Wednesday is something of a red-letter day. It’s when a key panel that shelved the project in June, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, is set to meet and could — after weeks of serious lobbying and threats to withhold future transportation aid — put the $3 billion project back on track, despite strong opposition from Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and many other local elected officials.

The behind-the-scenes efforts, which have included replacing board members who stood in opposition with others likely to endorse the project, has been something of a master class in gubernatorial power in the transportation arena. Never mind that Democrats control the General Assembly as well as local government in the state’s most populous county; when it comes to deciding which transportation projects move forward and which do not, Maryland’s Republican governor has the last word.

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But whether the project is revived, rejected again or if the wrangling simply continues to some undetermined conclusion, there’s at least one curious feature that deserves further scrutiny — the project’s enormous tolls. Six years ago, when Governor Hogan was on his first term and busy sneering at what he saw as the financial excesses of his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, he condemned the Democrat’s decision to raise tolls at a variety of state-owned facilities calling them “regressive,” “tax hikes in disguise” and “overly burdensome.” He ended up rolling them back. The prime example was how the cash toll at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was reduced from $6 to $4.

Yet now, $6 looks like quite a bargain. The massive Montgomery County project, which includes improvements to the American Legion Bridge will be financed through private borrowing repaid with tolls (including a profit margin for the vendor, Accelerate Maryland Partners which is led by toll operating company Transurban and banking company Macquarie Capital). It is expected to charge drivers rates as high as $50 in peak hours for a one-way journey. That translates to $5.64 per mile, compared to the Bay Bridge’s $1.39 a mile (or, counting the free return trip, 70 cents per mile), under the abandoned $6 toll on the 4.3-mile crossing. No wonder opponents commonly refer to the expansion as “Lexus Lanes.” Only the well-to-do would be able to afford such tolls with everyone else likely stuck in the congested non-toll lanes.

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Virginia has already embraced such a strategy with high-occupancy Interstate 66 toll lanes topping off in the same neighborhood of $4.75 a mile under its own pricing algorithm. Then and now, it’s defended as an incentive for carpooling and bus riding. But clearly the vast majority of drivers do pay substantial tolls, and while that’s probably no big deal for higher-income commuters, working-class people coming from inconvenient locations and traveling in peak hours are left to inhale the fumes of idling traffic. It’s yet another example of inequality rearing its ugly head. The highways used to be for everyone. In the future, they may be distinctly less so. Is that progress or regression?

Mr. Elrich insists that he wants to address the existing traffic bottleneck that threatens to get worse, particularly by replacing the American Legion Bridge, but he believes the Hogan administration has not listened to local concerns about the size, scope, environmental impact and financing methods Mr. Hogan has pursued. He would prefer the administration develop a local consensus. His own preference would be to create a pair of reversible lanes that switch direction to accommodate the primary flow of commuters.

More than one observer to this ongoing debacle has suggested that the county executive and governor be forced to sit down together and negotiate some sort of compromise. Yet neither seems so inclined. If there’s been one pattern to Mr. Hogan’s transportation formula, it’s been to follow his own political agenda. Reducing tolls served his purposes in the first term, raising them to astronomical heights apparently does the same in his second term. There is surely a place for toll roads, bridges and tunnels just as there is a place for properly supervised P3 projects and better functioning public transit. But there’s also something to be said for the just-as-vital process of building a regional consensus over such a huge, potentially disruptive and controversial project as the Capital Beltway/I-270 plan. Better to seek further compromise than jam this down Montgomery County’s throat.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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