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By more than 2-to-1, members of the public who submitted formal comments on Maryland’s proposed Interstate 270/I-495 express lanes plan objected to the tolls motorists would pay to use the lanes.
Members of the Maryland Transportation Authority board were briefed Thursday on more than 650 comments submitted by 290 people.
According to a staff analysis, 67% of comments on the state’s toll-rate proposal expressed opposition to it, 25% expressed support and 8% were neutral.
Similarly, 62% of comments on the “soft rate cap” — a mechanism intended to shield drivers from sudden toll spikes — were in opposition, compared with 24% that expressed support and 14% that were neutral.
According to MdTA staff, the most common themes expressed by opponents centered around cost, the perceived unfairness of toll roads in general, and the involvement of for-profit firms in the project.
“The toll rates will be and will become too expensive for the average driver to pay on a daily basis,” one such comment read.
Under the proposal state transportation officials unveiled in May, motorists who use I-270 and I-495 toll lanes will typically pay between $0.20 and $1.50 per mile — and never more than $3.76 per mile. (Larger vehicles and motorists who don’t have EZPass would pay more.)
Backers of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan say the rates are in line with those charged on other toll roads. Project supporters also say that people who remain in the no-cost lanes will find less congestion — and they note that transit vehicles, people who carpool, and motorcyclists will be able to ride free in the toll lanes.
But critics caution that the consortium chosen to finance and build the lanes will be allowed to exceed $1.50 per mile any time traffic in the express lanes drops below 45 miles an hour and whenever traffic volume exceeds 1,600 vehicles per hour, per lane.
Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, an opponent of the project, called the public’s comments an “overwhelming” rejection of the state’s rate proposal.
“I just continue to be amazed at their tone-deaf response, which is to surge ahead with a plan that disregards climate change and and the inequality that exists in our society,” she said. “It is shocking how much Maryland taxpayer funding has been expended thus far, and how much more is being pledged to a private company from Australia.”
MdTA Executive Director James F. Ports Jr. said the outpouring of opposition was to be expected.
“You do tend to hear from the people who oppose more than you hear from the people who support,” he said.
Echoing statements offered repeatedly by Hogan, Ports claimed that public support for the project has been “over 70%, but you’re not seeing 70% of the good comments come through.”
A 2019 Washington Post/University of Maryland survey found that 55% of Maryland residents surveyed support the express lanes plan, with 41% opposed.
The proposal was more popular in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia than in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Almost all of the comments the MdTA received came from Montgomery County residents. Many were general comments about the highway-widening project, not the proposed rates.
“Every piece of feedback that we get… is important,” Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said. “I read every one of these comments.”
John B. Townsend II, the head of government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, called them typical of the public’s reaction to large-scale infrastructure projects.
“One doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce the handiwork of organizations and groups historically opposed to such projects,” he said. “Where is the voice of the everyday motorist mired in gridlock?”
Although Slater has said that Maryland’s rate-cap will offer protections not found in most other states, one commenter suggested that rush-hour motorists will routinely pay more than $1.50 per mile.
“The 1600 passenger car equivalent miles is ridiculously low,” the person wrote. “By modern engineering standards, the [critical lane volume] on a high speed straight one way limited access highway is over 2200 [passenger car units].”
Maryland’s preliminary rate proposal has two built-in escalation mechanisms for boosting tolls over the course of the expected 50-year contract — one for inflation, the other for population growth.
A large majority — 72% — of the comments about the escalation clauses were in opposition to them; just 15% were in favor.
“You may be seeing some slight changes” to the rate proposal, Ports said. “We don’t solicit public input just to discard it. We do it because the public has some good ideas also.”
MdTA staff is expected to present toll-rate ranges to the authority’s board in late September, and the board is likely to approve a second public comment period.
The board is then expected to adopt another toll rate range in the fall, likely in October, subject to a third comment period.
The board would then likely consider a final vote to adopt toll rates for the project.