When the Maryland Transportation Authority put tentative Interstate 495/I-270 “express lane” toll rates out for public comment earlier this year, the project’s built-in annual increases were the most unpopular element of the proposal.
Seventy-two percent of the comments the authority received about the “annual escalation adjustments” were in opposition; 15% were in support and 13% were neutral.
On Thursday, authority staff recommended to the MDTA governing board that a second public comment period proceed with virtually the same toll rate structure as the first round.
The only change staff recommended was a three-cent decrease in the minimum toll charge — from $0.20 per mile to $0.17 per mile for two-axle vehicles equipped with E-ZPass. Truckers will see small reductions as well, from four cents to 24 cents, depending on the size of their vehicles.
The chief fiscal officer at the Maryland Department of Transportation said the suggestion came from a citizen during the first public comment period, and the agency agreed with it.
The annual toll hikes that motorists will likely face over the first 50 years of the project will remain unchanged, however. At a minimum they will rise in sync with the consumer price index (CPI) for the Washington, D.C., region; at a maximum they will increase at a rate 2.1% above the CPI each year.
Ben Ross, head of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the MDTA appears determined to cling to the most unpopular part of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to add four “managed” lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270.
An outspoken critic of the proposal, Ross said the state’s hands are essentially tied because of conditions laid down by its chosen partner — Accelerate Maryland Partners, a consortium headed by Transurban — to make the project financially viable.
“It’s a charade, because they are contractually obligated to Transurban to keep the tolls at that level,” Ross said.
The state’s toll proposal includes annual increases above inflation because of expected growth in the capital region’s population and income levels.
Carl Chamberlin, an MDTA project manager, told the board that the annual “adjustments are necessary to ensure that the toll rates will keep up with the growing traffic demand for the [toll] lanes, annual inflation, and the goal of providing a faster and more reliable trip for customers who choose to pay the toll.”
The board on Thursday approved a second public comment period to begin immediately and run until Oct. 28.
The panel is slated to get a summary and analysis of new comments at its November meeting, and it is expected to then approve toll rate ranges for the project.
Construction of the first phase of the project — the addition of four toll lanes from the American Legion Bridge, on the Capital Beltway, and up I-270 to Interstate 370 — is set to take five or six years.
The recommendation to shave a few cents off the minimum tolls would likely benefit those who travel when traffic is light. The proposed rates that motorists are likely to encounter during peak hours remain unchanged — up to $1.50 per mile for cars and between $2.25 per mile and $11.25 per mile for trucks. (plus escalation increases that will occur during construction).
Unlike most states with variable tolls, Maryland is proposing a soft-cap that the toll-road operator could exceed when traffic in the managed lanes bogs down. The maximum charge in that instance would be $3.76 per mile for cars and between $5.64 and $28.22 per mile for trucks, depending on their size. Those proposed rates are also unchanged.
Vehicles without E-ZPass would pay more.
Motorcycles, transit vehicles, and vehicles with three or more people would be able to use managed lanes free of charge. Existing lanes would also remain free.
Kopp casts doubt on key Hogan claim
The authority is expected to ask the Board of Public Works to approve a multi-billion construction contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners next year.
But before that can happen, the state may have to go to court to defend its decision to award a $54 million “pre-development” contract to Accelerate Maryland Partners. Capital Express Mobility Partners (CEMP), a losing bidder for the , has sued the state over its decision. A hearing has been set for Feb. 16 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
One member of the three-person Board of Public Works who has voted against the project repeatedly, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), continues to express reservations about it.
Earlier this month she rejected a core Hogan claim — one that he and other officials have made repeatedly for several years — that the lanes can be added “at no net cost to the state.”
During a discussion with Howard County attorney Robert V. Clark, host of the Everyday Law podcast, Kopp said, “Let me assure you, there will be public funds” used.
In addition to the tolls that some motorists will pay to bypass other vehicles, Kopp said, “There just have to be financial backups. There has to be participation.”
In a Maryland Matters interview, Kopp said she remains unconvinced about a declaration made by Hogan’s former Transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, when the project was unveiled. Rahn maintained that the state had to turn to the private sector to finance and build the new lanes because there was no other option.
Kopp said she wanted to do her own analysis of Rahn’s claim earlier this year but couldn’t, because of a lack of information.
“We never saw the argument for doing it as a [public-private partnership]. We never saw the alternatives,” she said. “I still have not gotten, really, a clear answer — with numbers laid out — and it’s been this long.”
Treasurer since 2002, Kopp said she is unaware of any U.S. transportation project “since the 19th century” that has not needed taxpayer support. “It’s very difficult for me to believe that we’re going to have a multi-billion-dollar, multi-decade transportation system at no public cost.”
“Of course we need to improve transportation,” Kopp added. “But you need to do it in wise and fiscally prudent way. I don’t believe we have the information with any transparency.”
Brian O’Malley, head of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, noted that the recently-released fiscal year 2022-27 draft Consolidated Transportation Program includes nearly $129 million for “Planning and preliminary design activities along I270 and I-495.”
“We are paying taxpayer dollars for that project, directly,” O’Malley said.
In response to Kopp’s comments, MDOT provided the following statement:
“The no-net cost to the state to build new managed lanes assumes the lanes get built. The Predevelopment Work costs of up to $50 million would be reimbursed to the Developer at financial close for a Section P3 Agreement, leaving the State no responsibility for those Predevelopment Work costs.”
“With a successful P3 Program, the State of Maryland gets a new American Legion Bridge and I-270 managed lanes totaling billions of dollars in infrastructure investment that the State doesn’t have to spend.”