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Hogan's $9 billion question

Hogan's $9 billion plan for widening D.C. highways a vague concept that deserves serious debate.

Two years ago and with much fanfare, Gov. Larry Hogan convinced the Maryland Transportation Authority to lower tolls on Maryland's highways and bridges to reverse the "downward spiral" of tax increases instituted by his predecessor. This week, Mr. Hogan announced a $9 billion highway widening plan likely to be financed chiefly through tolls so large that they will dwarf anything Maryland motorists have ever had to pay before. And that's just one of the curiosities of a state transportation proposal that is both enormously ambitious and remarkably vague.

Here's essentially all that is known for certain right now. Governor Hogan is asking private companies to submit proposals for public-private partnerships — known as P3s — to widen the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, assuming the state could be given control of the federal parkway. All are congested, and all primarily serve the needs of D.C. suburban commuters. Mr. Hogan's goal would be to add about 100 miles of express toll lanes built and controlled by private companies.

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Without knowing more specifics, it's difficult to gauge the merits of such an approach. But there are reasons to be wary. For starters, Marylanders may not realize how large a toll they may be facing. Two years ago, Mr. Hogan tapped public outrage over a $6 one-way toll at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. In Virginia ,where a P3 arrangement created "Express Lanes" on Interstate 95 and 495 that opened several years ago, the tolls charged in peak commuting hours are often around $1 a mile, meaning a motorist can be hit by a staggering $20 toll or more on a single drive. There's a reason why such arrangements are sometimes derided as "Lexus lanes." They take a lot of egalitarianism out of getting stuck in traffic.

There are also more fundamental questions about how Maryland should be investing in its transportation future. Widening highways is a 20th century approach to a 21st century economy. In its search for a $5 billion HQ2 headquarters, Amazon specified it was looking for transit infrastructure, not just highways. That's telling. Closer to home, Marriott International has announced it is moving its headquarters from the car-friendly confluence of I-270 and the Capital Beltway to a more urban, transit-oriented location on Wisconsin Avenue near the Bethesda Metro station. Surveys show the millennial generation isn't interested in lengthy commutes in their cars. They are getting their driver's licenses later in life, if at all. And then there is the matter of environment health. Marylanders want clean air and clean water, and they support taking greater steps to reduce climate change. Putting more vehicles on the road and encouraging sprawl development moves the state in exactly the opposite direction.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants has been a major focus on the state and national level — and understandably so, considering that electrical generation and heating account for about one-quarter of man-made greenhouse gases. But transportation is no slouch either, accounting for about 14 percent. The fewer cars and trucks on the road, the better, as they are the least energy efficient means of transportation. There are any number of alternatives. Surely step one is to facilitate development that allows people to walk, bike or hop on a bus or train to get from home to work. It's not just greener, it's leaner — car-dependence having been judged a major factor in the U.S. obesity epidemic.

But even if you set aside the impact widening those highways will have on regional planning (or the lack thereof) and the environment, there is also the worrisome matter of how the P3 might be structured. Who assumes the risk? What is the cost to taxpayers? Across the country, there are numerous examples of public-private successes and failures. Extending Interstate 69 in Indiana, for example, is generally regarded in the latter category. Launched nine years ago, the project is a traffic nightmare — behind schedule and over budget — and the state is in the process of taking it over. The P3 renovation of the MdTA's rest stops along I-95 north of Baltimore, on the other hand, has been judged a success. The difference is in the details.

That's why Governor Hogan's announcement seems more a starting point than a plan — and one that raises a lot of questions that can't be answered right now. Once again, he's demonstrating a willingness to invest in Washington area transportation, following his support of the 16.2-mile, $5.6 billion Purple Line light rail project and his recent offer of $500 million more for D.C.'s Metro (if Virginia, D.C. and federal government match it). Combined, those projects top the $15 billion mark. And for Baltimore? A Hogan spokesman says the governor will announce additional plans for the region. We suppose our funding must be stuck in traffic.

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