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About a dozen advocates and elected officials spoke Monday against toll rates proposed as part of a plan to widen portions of Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway.
The proposed toll rates, which would be collected by a private financier to pay for the road-widening project, would vary throughout the day, in an effort to keep traffic in the toll lanes traveling at 50 mph or more. The minimum toll would be 20 cents per mile for passenger vehicles, and the maximum rate would be $5.64 per mile, depending on whether drivers have toll transponders installed.
Project opponents noted that the currently proposed maximum tolls could yield a one-way trip that costs more than $50.
During the two, two-hour Maryland Transportation Authority public hearings held at a conference center on Rockville Pike, opponents decried the involvement of a private, foreign company in local infrastructure, and argued that the plan would benefit the well-heeled to the detriment of working class Marylanders.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, a project opponent, called the toll lane proposal “a complete denial of climate change and social justice.”
She noted, as did other speakers, that the project would change the current I-270 carpool lanes — which can be used, free, by any vehicle for 21 hours each day, as well as on weekends and holidays — to a tolled lane.
“This congestion relief plan is not congestion relief at all,” she said.
Newton also said there was no process for moving forward with the project at this time because of a June vote by the regional Transportation Planning Board to remove the project from a federally required air quality review.
The administration of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who has staunchly defended the project, has pressed that board for a revote at a meeting to be held next week.
Newton said she’s received thousands of emails in response to an online campaign by Hogan targeting project opponents, but none of the commenters — including many outside the city of Rockville — have mentioned that they support tolling.
Only one commenter at Monday’s hearings noted that they supported the broader road project: Edgar Gonzalez, executive director of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance.
Even so, Gonzalez had suggestions for changes to the proposed tolling agreement. The Maryland Transportation Authority should retain the final authority on toll rates annually for the duration of the 50-year contract, and a provision should be included to lower toll rates if construction costs come in below budget, he said.
Gonzalez said there should also be more transparency on toll rates, which include a “soft rate cap” that can’t be exceeded unless traffic volume causes the high-occupancy lanes to become congested or slow below 50 mph. Even before the soft rate cap kicks in, a 12-mile trip in the HOT lanes could cost either $2.40 or $18, Gonzalez said.
“This is a very large range for a one-way trip,” he said. “ … MDTA should clearly establish in advance how the price for that trip would be set, so users can have a good idea of the cost before they enter the toll lanes.”
Janet Gallant, from DontWiden270.org, said the state is “rushing ahead with this P3 that, by design, will benefit only the wealthiest and those who stand to profit from the tolling project.”
Barbara Coufal, a Bethesda resident and co-chair of a group called Citizens Against Beltway Expansion, said the proposed roadway design doesn’t allow drivers to transition in and out of tolled and regular lanes, which will trap people in longer-than-anticipated tolled trips, or force them to exit from the tolled lanes into neighborhoods to avoid additional charges.
Del. Al Carr, D-Montgomery, who has been critical of the state’s aggressive efforts to pursue toll debt and called for a decrease in the state’s late fees, said even more toll roads in the state could worsen inequities that already exist in the state’s tolling system.
“My fear is that under a P3 model, the private concessionaire will have every incentive to push Maryland and the MDTA to perpetuate or expand harmful and predatory tolling policies that hurt consumers but impact their bottom line,” he testified.
Other commenters voiced support for Montgomery County officials’ preferred solution of additional reversible lanes.
Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, asked the Maryland Transportation Authority board to slow the approval process. She said while the region clearly has traffic problems that need to be addressed, details about the toll proposal have been hard to find and to understand. She also cautioned that environmental reviews are still underway and should be understood clearly and accurately before the project moves forward.
A better strategy, Kagan said, would be to fund different improvements with the trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure plan that President Joe Biden and Congress are debating.
The rate-setting and construction planning for the project are moving forward on separate paths.
A $54-million design contract for the project between the Maryland Department of Transportation and Accelerate Maryland Partners (AMP), a consortium led by Transurban and an Australian financier, could come up before Maryland’s Board of Public Works later this month.
The Transportation Authority is likely to finalize toll rates in late fall, after recommended toll rate changes are announced and another round of public hearings are held.
A second pair of this round of public hearings is scheduled for Wednesday. Those call-in hearings will run from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The authority is also accepting testimony by voicemail and written comment through 5 p.m. on Aug. 12. Information about how to testify in all formats is at https://mdta.maryland.gov/ALB270TollSetting.