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Commentary Transportation

Opinion: MDOT’s Emails on Toll Lane Project Are Inappropriate PR Documents

Photo by Angela Breck.

By Arthur Katz

The writer is a resident of Rockville.

On Feb. 11, the Maryland Department of Transportation emailed to the public a communication, “HOT Lanes Can Improve Access and Options, Reduce Traffic Congestion in Maryland,” promoting the toll lane project on I-495/I-270.

On April 8, MDOT sent another questionable public communication where it again in a section called “Choose to travel for free” misleadingly stated, “2. Don’t want to pay a toll? Here’s what you can do instead. … Use the existing general-purpose lanes that are there today. These lanes will remain free for everyone and will get you where you need to go with less delay once the new HOT lanes are added.”

The broadly circulated MDOT messages are inappropriate PR documents. The narrow focus of the email’s promotional message is suitable for an advocacy group not, hopefully, an impartial public agency.

What is surprising is MDOT under the former secretary of transportation Greg Slater had conducted itself professionally during the federally required environment impact statement process.

As I have documented in my Jan. 4, 2022, Maryland Matters commentary, using MDOT’s own data, the vast majority of drivers who travel in the free general purpose lanes of the proposed toll road will be better off if the toll lanes are not built (the no-build option). To be clear, 85% to 90% of all drivers will be in the free GP part of the toll road with 10% to 15% of the drivers in the toll lanes.

If no toll lanes are built, all drivers will experience faster rush hour round trips, in some cases approaching 10 minutes, in comparison to the time for round trip that future GP drivers would experience if the proposed toll lanes on I-495/I-270 are built. The bottom line is that this is a project that will result in its largest group of stakeholders (the general purpose lane drivers) worse off.

The root cause of this toll road mess for most GP drivers is a chokepoint created by terminating the toll lanes on the Beltway between the I-270 spurs. When the toll lanes end and the road drops to three lanes, a nightmare of congestion will appear each evening as traffic backs up into the I-495/I-270 split and westward toward Virginia.

But you wouldn’t know the problem existed if you read the MDOT emails.

Moreover, the statement written in bold face in MDOT’s Feb. 11 email, “Existing general – purpose lanes throughout the corridor would be retained and remain free for use by all motorists,” is inaccurate.

The current free HOV lane on I-270 in each direction will be given free of charge to the toll lane contractor to become the second toll lane on I-270, thus reducing the number of free lanes from six to five. Much has been made of the contractor paying for the toll lanes and the public paying nothing, but in this case the HOV lanes are paid for by the public. These lanes are worth a lot of money.

Trying to assemble privately the necessary land needed for just one lane on a major highway would not only be costly but very time consuming – if it was possible at all.

There are many other issues such as air pollution, environment justice, greenhouse gases, and land and species environmental impacts that also deserve a public acknowledgement.

The current MDOT communications are unworthy of the generally professional manner the technical staff has conducted itself. MDOT needs to acknowledge the various concerns to fulfill its responsibility to the public.