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Op-ed

Former transportation secretary: Delaying toll lanes could be ‘disastrous’ for Maryland | GUEST COMMENTARY

Visionary American businessman Ben Feldman once said, “Doing something costs something. Doing nothing costs something. And, quite often, doing nothing costs a lot more.” When it comes to the Op Lanes Maryland program, which would add new High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to the incessantly congested American Legion Bridge and l-270 while keeping the existing general-purpose lanes free, further delays are unwarranted and would be disastrous in terms of lost money, time and quality of life for Maryland residents.

To me, as a former secretary of transportation in Maryland, and to industry professionals, this issue is a no-brainer. The benefits of this project are dramatic and well documented. The costs of not moving forward in a timely manner are immense. If Maryland faces further delays in implementing the Op Lanes Maryland program, it will have severe economic development and financial impacts on the state. We are at an inflection point. The studies have been done. The findings are clear. The time to act is now.

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These corridors have been under study for 30 years and a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the first section has been published. Its findings document significant congestion relief, improved travel speeds, minimal environmental or property impacts and, most importantly, no viable transit or other non-managed-lane alternatives to address the needs of this corridor. Previous studies have reached similar conclusions: We need to add lane capacity in each direction, no matter what else we do with transit or other modes, just as the D.C. region’s “Visualize 2045″ long-range transportation plan indicates. The 2019 Draft Environmental Impact Statement already ruled out reversible lanes because traffic flows are too heavy in both directions, so this is not a serious alternative. The plan before us is the only realistic way forward.

An estimated $3 to 4 billion in private infrastructure investment is being accessed through a public-private-partnership (P3) to rebuild the American Legion Bridge, provide the new HOT lanes and rebuild the existing travel lanes from the Potomac River to the Intercounty Connector. The average user would pay an estimated $3.95 per trip, while always having the option of using the adjacent general-purpose lanes, which would remain free and would be less congested. Over a half a billion dollars in new transit investment is also part of this multimodal program.

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The cost of not addressing the congestion in this corridor, which has not abated as a result of COVID, comes out to a whopping $2,000 per resident each year, in wasted fuel and other congestion-related costs. The fact that these costs fall disproportionately on health care, service industry, construction workers and others who cannot telecommute is a major concern. Yes, telecommuting has increased and is changing our workplace habits, but average daily vehicle trips on 1-270 and the American Legion Bridge are right back to where they were before the pandemic, and will only be trending up as the D.C. region continues to grow.

By far, the biggest costs to Maryland taxpayers would come if the project is delayed or canceled, and those costs would be prohibitive. Here’s why.

The American Legion Bridge is over 60 years old, it is functionally obsolete and at the end of its structural design life. It needs to be replaced in any case for safety reasons, with or without the Op Lanes Maryland P3 program. The big advantage of using a P3 to finance these improvements is that it frees up billions of public tax dollars we would otherwise have to spend on the bridge, so they can be spent on other road, transit, bike and pedestrian projects that we also need around the State. It brings new money to the table that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

If those funds have to come out of the State’s Transportation Trust Fund instead, that means our next governor won’t be able to advance a new Red Line for Baltimore, or increased Metro or bus rapid transit services in Suburban Maryland, or any major new road or intersection improvements in other parts of the state for a decade or more. That is what it would take to finance this project using traditional state and federal funding sources.

The state’s Transportation Trust Fund simply does not have the billions it would take to rebuild the American Legion Bridge, nor does Maryland have the bonding capacity to do so without the private-sector financing that is proposed. New federal infrastructure grants could help some, around the margins, but they do not provide a viable alternative as they are limited and require a 50% state match. Maryland does not have half of $3 to 4 billion in the trust fund either.

Years of delay have already driven up the cost of this project by 20%. Further delays in implementing the Op Lanes program would only impose even higher costs for Maryland. In the meantime, congestion on the deteriorating American Legion Bridge and l-270 will only grow worse, costing our economy billions. Construction and financing costs will continue to go up. At some point, private investors may conclude Maryland is just too difficult a place to do business and choose to invest their infrastructure dollars elsewhere.

The reality is, there is no alternative to making these improvements, and no viable alternative to financing them other than through a public-private partnership. Maryland simply cannot afford any further delay. If the Op Lanes program does not happen now, that would be the costliest mistake of all.

David L. Winstead (dlwinstead@comcast.net) is a former Maryland Secretary of Transportation and founding chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Public Development and Infrastructure Council.


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