What Will it Cost To Use New I-495/I-270 Toll Lanes? That Depends.

The Maryland Department of Transportation's "new recommended preferred alternative” in the state’s plan to add toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270. The new alterative focuses solely on building a new American Legion Bridge and adding two high occupancy toll lanes in each direction from the American Legion Bridge and I-270 to I-370. The alternative calls for “no action at this time" on the Beltway east of the I-270 eastern spur. Department of Transportation graphic.

Maryland residents will have nearly two months — until mid-August — to offer their thoughts on a set of proposed tolls for the “managed lanes” that the Hogan administration wants to build along portions of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

It may take the public that long to decipher the Maryland Transportation Authority’s 87-page “dynamic-pricing” scheme.

On the surface, the basics appear simple enough.

Tolls on the new lanes would vary throughout the day. The consortium that ultimately wins the right to finance and build the lanes will tweak the price, as often as every five minutes, based on demand. Their goal — and their promise to the state — will be to keep traffic in the High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes moving.

Under the rate structure approved for public comment by the authority’s board of directors on Thursday, a motorist driving a passenger vehicle will pay a minimum of 20 cents per mile.

A “soft rate cap” of $1.50-per-mile will be in effect as long as traffic in the HOT lanes remains at or above 50 miles an hour, so in theory tolls will range between 20 cents and $1.50 per mile much of the time.

Under no circumstance, officials insist, will motorists pay more than $3.76 per mile.

Obviously, it didn’t take authority staffers 87 pages just to convey that. There is much more.

For starters, the base rates (those quoted above) only apply to passenger cars.

There is a separate set of rates for 3-axle light, 3-axle heavy, 4-axle light, 4-axle heavy, 5-axle and 6-axle-plus vehicles.

In addition, the base rates only apply to people who have an active E-ZPass account.

Motorists who prefer to establish an account directly with the state (the system known as “Pay-By-Plate”) will will pay 1.25 times the E-ZPass rate. “Unregistered” motorists — those with no payment system — will receive a bill in the mail through Maryland’s “video tolling” operation. They will pay 1.5 times the base rate.

It was in taking those permutations into account that the authority was able to arrive at a 63-field grid of rates, ranging from 20-cents-per-mile for a passenger car using E-ZPass all the way up to $42.33-per-mile for a big-rig trucker without a payment system.

But wait, there’s more.

All of the rates listed above will increase on an annual basis, due to a set of proposed “escalation” provisions.

Tolls can rise 1.1% per year as the number of jobs in the capital region increases and another 1% per year as personal income grows. There will also be an annual inflation adjustment, based on the Washington-area’s official consumer price index.

In briefing the board, Transportation Secretary Greg Slater hailed the “soft rate cap” as a major consumer protection. He said Maryland will be one of just two states with such a system.

“Many states that have these types of facilities don’t have a soft cap or even a hard cap,” he said. “We felt pretty strongly that we needed a set of parameters around the tolling.”

And, he noted, many people will continue to pay no toll when the new lanes open, including motorists who use the existing lanes, those who carpool, people who ride transit buses and motorcyclists.

But the authority’s Chief Financial Officer, Deborah Sharpless, cautioned that the developer of the toll lanes will be allowed to exceed the soft rate cap whenever traffic on the HOT lanes dips below 50 miles an hour or whenever traffic volume exceeds 1,600 passenger vehicles per hour, per lane.

And according to data the authority provided to the board, it’s estimated that motorists traveling from Virginia to Maryland between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays will see the soft rate cap exceeded more than 60% of the time.

Ben Ross, the head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and a leading critic of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s toll plan, charged that the tolls put out for public comment are misleading, because the new lanes won’t open until 2026 at the earliest.

“All of their examples are based on the toll rates in effect in 2021,” he said. “But there are no toll lanes in 2021, so no one will ever pay those tolls. The toll lanes will exist and be subject to this contract from 2026 to 2076.”

The maximum toll rates will undoubtedly be fodder for critics of managed lanes, who frequently refer to them as “Lexus Lanes.”

But Sharpless told the board “it is very, very small that we expect to hit the maximum toll rate. We’re talking about extreme circumstances, major incidents.”

She said that in Northern Virginia, which has an extensive system of managed lanes, motorists pay a per-trip  average of $5.40 on I-495 and $8.45 on I-95.

The authority will hold public hearings on the proposed rates, but dates, times and locations have not been announced.

The first public comment period will run until August 12. Staff will make recommendations based on those comments, and a second comment period will run between August 26 and October 14.

Comments can be submitted via the authority’s web site: mdta.maryland.gov/ALB270TollSetting. A video describing the soft rate cap is also available online: https://player.vimeo.com/video/552441203.

The authority board is expected to approve a toll-rate plan at its Oct. 28 meeting.

After briefing the board on the 87-page proposal, state transportation officials conceded that motorists are likely to find it difficult to decipher.

“It’s not common,” Sharpless said of the soft rate cap concept. “And it can be perceived as complicated.”

Board member W. Lee Gaines Jr. suggested the public will grasp the system “maybe eventually.”

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.