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Would Md. ICC toll discount draw more drivers?

Wednesday - 3/5/2014, 5:22am  ET

ICC_filephoto.jpg
Will a change to the tolls draw more commuters to the ICC? (WTOP File)

LAUREL, Md. -- As the Intercounty Connector remains relatively unused, one candidate for Maryland governor wants to offer an incentive to commuters to drive the toll road.

Attorney General Doug Gansler says if he were elected governor, drivers who used the ICC at least 15 times per month would get a 50 percent discount on all tolls. The roadway runs between Interstate 95 in Laurel and Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg, with a final segment from 95 to Route 1 in Laurel opening this summer.

"Our region was ranked the worst in the country for traffic. There's a lot of congestion on the Beltway. The whole purpose of spending $3 billion on the ICC was to reduce traffic. That hasn't been done. If you look at the ICC at any given time, it's like an empty runway at an airport. So the idea here is for people using the ICC to commute, to give them a reduced price," says Gansler.

For a commuter going end-to-end in rush hours, tolls cost about $60 a week, or about $3,000 per year. Gansler says under his proposal, that same driver would only spend $1,500 per year.

"The reason we picked 15 trips per month is because it shows a driver's commitment to use the road. Financially, there would be a break-even proposition because ... if you drop the price, more people will use it. In the short term, there may be a loss of money for the state. But in the long term, the increased ridership will compensate for the lower toll," says Gansler.

Montgomery County Councilmember Phil Andrews has called upon the Maryland Transportation Authority to cut all tolls in half, no matter how often a driver uses the road. While the principles are similar, Gansler says he believes limiting the discount to commuters makes more sense. He says the Andrews proposal goes too far, although the two use similar language to characterize the roadway.

"When we found out that it was being used on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the Harbor Tunnel, it seemed like, why are they not using it for people in Montgomery and Prince George's County?," he says.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is running against Gansler, did not commit to a position on the issue.

"I think it's important to look at the impact of what a rate reduction would mean," Brown says.

"Certainly, we want to increase ridership on the Intercounty Connector. Studies right now show that reducing the tolls would not accomplish that. So I'm interested in looking at all the measures we can take to increase volume on the ICC, so that it can accomplish its purpose of alleviating congestion on the Beltway and facilitating trips between places like Rockville and BWI."

MDTA officials do not agree with Gansler's proposal, saying the agency would not consider such a concept.

"The ICC was built for the future, and not to be at full capacity with the traffic demands of today. A key purpose for tolling the ICC is to manage these future traffic demands and congestion in order to continue providing the time savings and reliability that it does today. Using a different tolling model by offering commuter discounts is counter to the roadway's purpose," writes MDTA spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks.

When asked how the ICC differs from the Bay Bridge or Baltimore's Harbor Tunnel, she reiterated that the ICC is a congestion-managed roadway.

"Commuter discounts on the ICC are not being considered, as this is contrary to the tolling methodology for which the ICC was built," she writes.

Gansler says that if he is elected Maryland governor, he expects the MDTA to change its position.

"The MDTA serves at the pleasure of the governor. The board is picked by the governor. You would just say that we spent almost $3 billion on this road, we need to use it. It's taxpayer money. We need to actually have the ICC pay off and benefit the people for whom it was built," says Gansler.

MDTA officials say the roadway is reducing traffic on nearby roads, pointing to a report from the Council of Governments released in June. The agency also says the roadway is meeting traffic projections and remains in a ramp-up period.

Gansler counters that it hasn't had an impact on the Capital Beltway. He adds the ICC is not meeting the original expectations, pointing to how the MDTA lowered the traffic projections in 2005. He says MDTA lowered the bar so much that you can step over it.

As The Washington Post reported late last year, the ICC took in $39.6 million in revenue in fiscal year 2013. The figure met internal expectations, but was much lower than the $50 million to $80 million projected in 2005.

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