Md. Sierra Club: Planning Board Should Continue to Reject Hogan Toll Lane Project

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), with then-state transportation secretary Pete K. Rahn behind him, announcing his plans to widen Interstates 270 and 495 in 2017. Maryland Governor's Office photo by Steve Kwak.

Gov. Larry Hogan and highway industry lobbyists have launched a massive campaign of intimidation and misinformation to pressure local governments into reinstating private toll lanes on Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway in the region’s long-range plan.

From the start, the governors of Virginia and Maryland jumped to the conclusion that private toll lanes were the sole answer to the challenges on the Beltway. Private toll lanes deliver the big profits for the toll road companies and investors, not the transportation that is best for the public.

In this case, that means guaranteed congestion for the vast majority of drivers in the untolled lanes, traffic jams so bad that people will pay the high tolls that investors demand.

To justify this predetermined choice, both states dismissed alternatives such as rail transit or changes in land use, without any objective analysis. Public-private partnership structures in both states biased the outcomes and gave industry the inside track at the expense of the taxpaying public.

Virginia’s just-approved deal to extend the Beltway toll lanes to George Washington Parkway will create a new bottleneck just before the American Legion Bridge. This appears intended to force the hand of local Maryland officials to accept a continuation of the private toll lanes into Maryland. In the process, Virginia has signed a deal which maintains onerous clauses that limit the expansion of transit and essentially prevent a rail connection over the American Legion Bridge.

In Maryland, Gov. Hogan aims to jam through a contract with Transurban before the financial risks to taxpayers are known and before environmental studies are complete. On top of all this, the excessively high toll rates in Maryland required under Hogan’s proposal — as much as $50 for a passenger car traveling 12 miles on the HOT lanes at rush hour — make clear the toll lanes will be unaffordable for most people.

To make matters worse, Transurban-led Accelerate Maryland Partners has told the Maryland Transportation Authority that the tolls need to be even higher.

Gov. Hogan now says other transportation projects must be cut if the toll lane project doesn’t go forward. This is nonsense.

Not building something doesn’t cost money. At most, the deck of the American Legion Bridge would need replacement in 10 years or so. This would cost a small fraction of any of the numbers the Hogan administration has thrown out — first $6 billion, then $2.84 billion, then $1.5 billion and now $1.23 billion, ever-changing claims further undermining the Hogan administration’s credibility.

Climate change is causing record heat waves that are killing people and wildlife, causing record forest fires and droughts, record flooding, and sea level rise. Yet, our governors and too many local officials are turning a blind eye.

New highway lanes induce more driving, which brings more pollution and climate emissions. It is a fact. Even if the HOT lanes create a faster moving alternative, they depend on the general-purpose lanes staying congested, and they generate more traffic on connecting roads. Expansion to 12-plus lane highways will mean the loss of thousands of carbon-absorbing trees, more impervious surfaces and harm to streams, loss of parkland and more air pollution, including ozone and particulates that are destructive of human health.

Instead of running a scorched-earth political campaign, Gov. Hogan should have worked over the past two years with local officials and the community to evaluate real alternatives. The Transportation Planning Board should stand by its decision to reject the toll lane project and insist on a more sustainable solution.

–JOSH TULKIN ON BEHALF OF THE MARYLAND SIERRA CLUB

The writer is head of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.