Opinion: The Myth of 73 Hours

Maryland’s secretary of Transportation claims that drivers will save an average of 73 hours annually if the Capital Beltway/American Legion Bridge/Interstate 270 highway is expanded by two toll lanes in each direction.

That number is a myth and a misdirection. It creates an unrealistic expectation that the toll road will dramatically change most people’s commuting lives.

Although the Hogan administration has claimed such time savings over the last couple of years, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) has never detailed the models and data used to produce these estimates. Without that information, no one can independently verify those assertions.

The real test of traffic relief is what travelers experience daily in morning and evening commutes, not a yearly average. With about 250 driving days in a work year, commuters make 500 trips to and from work annually. The key question is what these daily trips will be like.

A quick calculation of daily savings in the non-toll lanes — where 90 percent to 95 percent of drivers travel — yields a projected savings (albeit optimistic) of about six to seven minutes per trip. But traffic in non-toll lanes would continue to have good and bad flow days and no guarantee of a quicker trip.

Because the average savings estimate does not differentiate between the two categories of drivers, it is a myth for most.

To be financially viable and motivate 5 percent to 10 percent of drivers to use toll lanes, toll road users would have to travel at a significantly higher average speed than now and have larger time savings than non-toll road users — perhaps 100-plus hours of savings per year, not 73. Otherwise, who would want to pay the tolls?

The high percentage of drivers who are commuting in non-toll lanes would experience congestion and dramatically lower speeds, saving perhaps just 50 hours annually (an average of six minutes per trip).

Even though the average savings might be six minutes per trip, each day in the non-toll lanes would still be a crap shoot. And when you cannot rely on saving time for a trip, it has no value for planning your life.

So MDOT’s average yearly savings estimate hides the truth that there would be no meaningful benefits for the vast majority of commuters who do not, or cannot, use what some call luxury toll lanes, every day.

A limited benefit for non-toll drivers is key and built in the plan. If you had both a certain and significant time savings for non-toll lane drivers every day, the motivation to pay any toll would be reduced, and that could be a financial disaster for the toll lanes builder.

To maintain speeds that attract drivers to toll lanes, only a fixed maximum number of vehicles can be allowed. As traffic grows and toll lanes become saturated, additional traffic will have to travel in non-toll lanes, shrinking and eliminating time savings for drivers there.

Further, it is worth noting that land toll lanes are built on publicly owned land. That means that no more than 10 percent of travelers are using a quarter to a third of that public land.

Is this a good use of a valuable public resource?

— ARTHUR KATZ

The writer is a resident of Rockville.