Md. officials debate Purple Line and ICC tolls

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Montgomery and Prince George’s county Democrats came together Thursday to criticize Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan on his opposition to the Purple Line, while key questions remain about the future of the Intercounty Connector under the next governor.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Councilmembers Craig Rice, Hans Reimer and Mel Franklin were among those to urge voters that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is the only candidate who’ll ensure the Purple Line is built.

The Purple Line is a light-rail line that will connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, Greenbelt, College Park and New Carrollton. It will link up Metro’s Red, Green and Orange Lines in an east-west route. Construction could begin in 2015; service could begin in 2020.

But while the Purple Line will make better connections between the two regions in the lower county, the Intercounty Connector (ICC) is the main connection in mid- and upper-county cities such as Beltsville, Laurel, Burtonsville, Wheaton, Rockville and Gaithersburg.

In the Democratic primary, Attorney General Doug Gansler proposed a 50-percent discount for commuters who used the ICC at least 20 days in a calendar month. The proposal differed from Montgomery County Councilmember Phil Andrews’ plan to cut tolls for all drivers.

“I would like to see more people use the ICC, but I would not like to see so many people use that it gets clogged,” Leggett says. “Maybe the approach whereby you can strike a balance for people who regularly use it, that may work. But we need to evaluate it and I hope we do so.”

But Rice doesn’t believe the Gansler proposal would make much sense. He’s concerned about lost revenue. For any plan to work, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) would still need to have enough toll revenue to pay back the bonds used to build the toll road.

“To take money out of the coffers, that’s a decision that has to be heavily weighed. It’s not as simple as offering a discount, where is that money coming from?” asks Rice.

As Election Day nears, the candidates for governor in Maryland also have vastly different takes on whether to support a Gansler or Andrews proposal.

“A Brown-Ulman administration would be committed to a comprehensive tax review in order to provide relief to working families, but we are mindful that tolls are set by an independent commission so politicians can’t make unsustainable promises in an election year,” says Brown campaign manager Justin Schall.

MDTA officials have been steadfast about opposing any discounts for commuters or HOV riders. The agency has told WTOP that reducing the tolls would be contrary to the intended purpose of the ICC. The MDTA operates the ICC in Maryland.

But the Hogan campaign takes a much different position than Brown, going further than Gansler and embracing the Andrews proposal.

“By lowering ICC costs across the board, we’ll save Montgomery and Prince George’s residents money, reduce congestion and through increased usage, we’ll boost state revenue,” says Hogan campaign spokesman Adam Dubitsky.

Like Gansler and Andrews, the Hogan campaign argues that a simple supply-and- demand curve will help maximize the cars using the ICC and make up for any lost revenue to pay off the bonds — although such a move could conflict with Leggett’s desire to keep the ICC congestion free.

Others argue that there is not a problem at all.

“I think when we look at the overall numbers of people using the ICC, the numbers are positive. I think the utilization is right where it needs to be, although others may disagree. Why offer a discount for a road that is meeting expectations?” adds Rice.

MDTA officials tend to agree with Rice. The agency reports that during the workweek in September, the average daily usage was 45,000 vehicles across the ICC.

“The traffic usage is significantly higher than projected at the western end (connecting to the I-270 business corridor), and in the middle of the facility. It is lower than projected on the eastern end. Drivers are also making longer trips on the ICC than originally estimated,” says MDTA spokesman John Sales.

In Northern Virginia the discussion is different, because the 495 and 95 Express Lanes were built through a public-private partnership with Transurban. The tolls are dynamic and allow Transurban to keep ridership in the toll lanes within a stable range during the day. If toll lanes were built on I-66, then it would also likely include the dynamic toll model. HOV riders do not have to pay a toll in Northern Virginia.

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