Greater Greater Washington

Maryland will pay for underused I-95 toll lanes

Maryland highway planners predicted that if the state didn't build 7 miles of toll lanes on I-95 north of Baltimore, the road would back up for hours every day. But when the $1.1 billion expansion opens in 2014, it won't even collect $10 million a year in tolls.


Rendering of future I-95/I-695 interchange with toll lanes from MdTA.

When former Governor Robert Ehrlich's administration decided in 2003 to add toll lanes to I-95 north of Baltimore, the traffic forecast for 2020 was 238,000 vehicles per day. Now the state predicts 186,000 daily drivers in 2020. Even that assumes growth of 1% per year, although traffic has been flat since at least 2006.

The toll lanes, their promoters said, would benefit even those who can't afford to pay by taking traffic off the free lanes. Tolls would be set to attract as many cars to the pay lanes as they could carry without backing up. But that policy, it turns out, would only yield $2 or $3 million a year in revenue, barely more than the cost of collecting tolls, so Maryland boosted the rates to match the per-mile charge on the Intercounty Connector.

With a rush-hour toll of $1.75, the 4 toll lanes will carry less than 7% of the total traffic on the 12-lane highway. Truck drivers will avoid them, the Maryland Transportation Authority's consultants say, "due to the minimal benefit for trucks in saving small amounts of time." Except during exceptional traffic jams, nearly the only users will be drivers affluent enough not to care much about the toll, leading some to call them "Lexus lanes."

But folks who can't afford to use the Lexus lanes will pay a hefty price for them. When construction began, the Ehrlich administration estimated the cost at $830 million. The price tag has now grown by a third, even though transportation officials eliminated some expensive flyover access ramps as a cost-saving measure after Governor Martin O'Malley took office in 2007.

The net toll revenue of around $5 million a year (after subtracting toll collection expenses) won't begin to pay off the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt the state has taken on. The bill will go to drivers on the Bay Bridge, Harbor Tunnel, and other roadways the transportation authority operates, unless it raids the tax-supported Transportation Trust Fund as it did to pay for the Intercounty Connector.

Even toll road enthusiasts admit that the I-95 toll lanes are a "disappointment," built to meet forecasts that are "now seen as an absurd basis for planning." This debacle was in fact quite foreseeable. It's a lesson highway planners should take to heart.

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Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His new book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is published by Oxford University Press. 

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That's sad, money would have been better spent beefing up MARC or further developing the Red Line though it sounds fortunately like they are on track to get Federal money.

by BTA on Nov 5, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

meanwhile the I495 express lanes in virginia are getting record toll levels, and growing revenue.

The takeaway here is not that tolled lanes are bad - its that traffic forecasting is key, and that traffic forecasting needs to reflect the changing realities of auto use. A corridor with such high usage and growth as the beltway leading to Tysons can be successful despite the nationwide shift away from auto VMT, but a more marginal corridor cannot be.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

I support congestion pricing but let's review.

Aid Plan for O.C. Tollway Unveiled
http://articles.latimes.com/2005/oct/14/local/me-tollway14

Greenville SC Southern Connector toller files for bankruptcy
http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/4808

San Diego County regional government to buy bankrupt toll road
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/07/san-diego-regional-government-to-purchase-bankrupt-state-route-125-toll-road.html

REFINANCING:Dulles Greenway to Restructure with Bond Offering
http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/2170

But somehow, Amtrak is a Soviet-style transportation system...

by 202_cyclist on Nov 5, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

Maryland should use time of day pricing and all electronic toll collection to maximize use and revenue generation from the toll lanes.

by Steve on Nov 5, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

The dulles greenway article appears to be from 1998.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 10:44 am • linkreport

Steve - They are doing that.

by Ben Ross on Nov 5, 2013 10:45 am • linkreport

How much time will these lanes save someone on the average weekday? The average Friday during summer?

by JimT on Nov 5, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

The bonds that MdTA sold to fund construction of this project could not be used for anything run by the Maryland Transit Administration, including MARC train improvements (they would presumably be in violation of their trust indenture if they sold toll revenue bonds to fund transit projects).

The only transit projects that MdTA has ever funded from bond sales are the construction of parking decks at several Metrorail stations in Prince George's County - and those only because patrons have to pay to park there, and the parking charges are used to pay back the bondholders.

by C P Zilliacus on Nov 5, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

"meanwhile the I495 express lanes in virginia are getting record toll levels, and growing revenue."

They are still way, way below the original predicted number of vehicles. The same goes for the ICC...way below original estimates. Now, they have gone back and revised those estimates to put make a rosier picture.

by ArchStanton on Nov 5, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

They could have used that money on 95 south of Baltimore.

They could have used that money on 495 in maryland.

Better yet they could have used the ICC money on 495.

by Richard on Nov 5, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

arch

do you have a complete set of forecasts by date, versus achieved levels? (for I495 I mean).

My impression is that transurban still expects this to be postive ROI for them.

From the public POV, we are benefitting from the associated road fixes (improved interchange at I66, the rebuilt bridges over I495 including new bike/ped access) the use of the lanes free by carpoolers, and the use of them by express buses.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

The same goes for the ICC...way below original estimates.

I respectfully disagree.

Since we are quoting TOLLROADSnews above, here is what was written last week about the ICC: Maryland's Inter County Connector MD200 has solid 40k ADT traffic, $40m/year tolls after two years operation

Quoting (with emphasis added):

Operator Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) reports revenue at $39.6m for the fiscal year that ended June 30, almost exactly, they say, at CDM Smith's forecast level.

The western segments of the 18 mile, 30km 2x3 lane expressway have done somewhat better than forecast and the two eastern segments more poorly than forecast. And there have been slightly more longer trips and fewer short on-&-off trips than forecast.

A statement quotes James T. Smith state transportation secretary and chair of MdTA: "The ICC was designed to accommodate expected traffic capacity in 2030 and to provide relatively congestion-free travel with reliable travel times today and for years to come. Even though the ICC is still in a ‘ramping up’ period in these early years of operation, average weekday traffic volumes for the ICC have grown approximately 75 percent since opening to I-95, and this year we confirmed the significant travel-time savings with the ICC in a study released in June.”

by C P Zilliacus on Nov 5, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/6774

well, still pretty weak. But that seems to be compared to the pre-recession forecasts.

Poor trans urban couldn't predict either the lehman collapse or the triumph of austerianism.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

@CPZ - I have tried to compare the numbers in the TollRoadNews article with the original 2006 traffic predictions. It's not an easy comparison to make, because the phasing of the project opening is different from what was anticipated in 2006, and the article gives the average of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday while the predictions were five-day averages.

The original baseline prediction was that traffic would ramp up to an equilibrium level over 3 years, but the consultants also looked at slower rampups over 5 or 8 years. The only thing clear to me is that the east end of the ICC has less traffic than predicted. I can't tell whether the west end is doing about as predicted, or better than predicted. Overall, the traffic seems to be somewhere between the 3-year and 8-year rampup.

I think only time will tell whether we are simply seeing a slower rampup than 3 years, or traffic will level out at lower levels than predicted. Over the longer term, as I wrote two years ago, things will depend on socioeconomic trends. I think the trends will cause the ICC to get less traffic than predicted, but again only time will tell.

by Ben Ross on Nov 5, 2013 11:24 am • linkreport

What will happen with usage of the I-495 toll lanes once the Silver Line opens? This seems like it is the high-water mark for them, as the Silver line will hopefully reduce vehicle trips on I-495 to Tysons and the Dulles corridor.

by 202_cyclist on Nov 5, 2013 11:27 am • linkreport

Maybe MDTA should at least study the option of tolling all of the lanes of the Maryland Turnpike at rush hour, rather than just the new lanes. Originally you had to pay a small toll if you got off before the Susquehana Bridge.

Somehow the idea has been promoted that tolls are mainly for long-distance travelers while commuters should use the roads for free (or at least a reduced rate).

Can we assume that "Section 200" of this project is dead?

by JimT on Nov 5, 2013 11:27 am • linkreport

What will happen with usage of the I-495 toll lanes once the Silver Line opens? This seems like it is the high-water mark for them, as the Silver line will hopefully reduce vehicle trips on I-495 to Tysons and the Dulles corridor.

I don't think so. Most 495 users are coming from Annandale, Springfield, southern Fairfax, Prince William, and points south. The Silver line will get few of them - it will get folks from Arlington, DC, Reston - and in phase 2, herndon, and Loudoun - few of whom use 495.

One is east west, the other is north south.

Usage of both should increase as tysons develops further. They are more complements than substitutes.

If Tysons gets MUCH more walkable, more people might shift to express buses (which use the toll lanes free) but I am not holding my breath for that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

MD needs to connect the I 270 HOV lanes to the virginia HOV lanes and start charging. Get a waiver from the Feds so they don't need to widen the road and use the camera system that Florida uses to police the lanes (MD for all it's "progressiveness" is full of thieves who misuse it's resources).

They'll make a mint and be able to pay off their failed quixotic projects in record time.

by Name1 on Nov 5, 2013 11:39 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

"meanwhile the I495 express lanes in virginia are getting record toll levels, and growing revenue."

I think your homerism is showing. The VA toll lanes have pretty much been failed in meeting revenue and usage projections. Yeah it's going have "record revenue" every quarter for the next few years since its brand new, but at some point it's going to level out before Transurban wants it too.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/new-beltway-express-lanes-lead-to-crashes-and-changes/2012/11/19/ca0fb4cc-3289-11e2-9cfa-e41bac906cc9_story.html
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2013/01/28/hot-lanes-continue-to-befuddle-drivers/
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2013/01/11/beltway-express-lanes-first-report-on-usage/
http://www.tollroadsnews.com/node/6388
http://fairfaxnews.com/2013/02/495-express-lanes-not-meeting-projections/
http://wamu.org/news/13/10/22/one_year_after_opening_beltway_express_lanes_still_struggle_to_attract_drivers

Lexus lanes are a dumb and expensive idea. The JFK Expressway needed to be expanded (both portions in MD and DE), but it would make a lot more sense to simply add a standard 2-lane, HOV facility rather than the elaborate ETL setup, but Ehrlich was braindead so we couldn't really expect much more from him.

At least the ICC hasn't been a total waste, and with the I-95 ETL's maybe my 8 hour Thanksgiving trip to New York (which would be 3.5 any other week) will be cut to 7 hours!

by King Terrapin on Nov 5, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

It's irrelevant whether MDTA could have used the money for transit. Money came out of the state budget to fund this that could have been put to better use.

by BTA on Nov 5, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

It would have made far more sense to put the toll lanes on the Beltway to connect with those in Virginia.

by ceefer66 on Nov 5, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

What a waste of money. There is, however, one segment on I-95 north of Baltimore I've found could use some improvement.

Heading north, there is a toll after you cross the Millard Tydings Bridge. As I-95 transitions from 3 lanes to 12 toll lanes, it expands to 1 EZ Pass Only lane and 3 large lanes. Because there is just 1 EZ Pass Only lane drawn, those drivers in the left lane for the EZ Pass Only toll tend to use only 1 lane out of the 12 to approach the toll plaza, when they could be using 3 lanes.

I e-mailed MDTA about this issue after experiencing congestion backed up a few miles from the toll while on the way up to NY. I did receive a reply saying it had been forwarded to the Northern Region Administrator and traffic manager to look into.

by DAK4Blizzard on Nov 5, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

The takeaway here is not that tolled lanes are bad - its that traffic forecasting is key,

Traffic forecasting is important but I'd say the key is to have an overall vision for growth and let that vision lead the way for infrastructure investments. Fairfax got it right by planning to focus most growth in Tysons and then supporting that vision with infrastructure improvements.

Infrastructure shouldn't just be built in a vacuum. It has to be part of an integrated approach to growth.

by Falls Church on Nov 5, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

king terrapin

the lanes are carrying a lot of people (including people in carpools and buses which do nothing for Transurban but are good for NoVa) Is it enough for Transurban to break even - it wasnt clear from the WAMU story. But as Frankel says, even if its not and Transurban goes under, NoVa still gets the infra.

If these prove to routinely be bad investments for the private partners, then in the future private partners won't want to invest in them, and we will see fewer of them.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

Falls Church

is Maryland not planning on growth in Baltimore?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 1:08 pm • linkreport

Every time I drive north of Baltimore, I marvel at how long it has taken to construct these lanes. Seems like it has taken twice as long as the 495 Express lanes, for a shorter-length project to boot.

by CaBi Driver on Nov 5, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

@BTA:

Sorry to disagree, but it IS relevant. Numerous entities, including on this forum, have postulated what the $1.1B spent on the I-95 ETL lanes (not to mention the $2+B that went to the ICC) could have done if spent on transit, when the reality is that only a portion of that funding could have been diverted to transit instead.

by Froggie on Nov 5, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

Its not really relevant. If the money hadn't been borrowed, it wouldn't have to be paid back. Which means money in the future that COULD be spent on other things - transit, or even other better highways.

by TomA on Nov 5, 2013 2:21 pm • linkreport

As long as DC area grows, Richmond area grows, and Hampton Roads aka 7 cities grows the Baltimore area will continue to grow.

by Rick on Nov 5, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

It's irrelevant whether MDTA could have used the money for transit. Money came out of the state budget to fund this that could have been put to better use.

Not correct. MdTA is legally an unbudgeted agency of the State of Maryland. MdTA could sell bonds to fund transit capital projects if the transit projects were able to pay those capital costs. That is not the case.

by C P Zilliacus on Nov 5, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

Maybe MDTA should at least study the option of tolling all of the lanes of the Maryland Turnpike at rush hour, rather than just the new lanes. Originally you had to pay a small toll if you got off before the Susquehana Bridge.

This is (IMO) a good idea. Prior to about 1982, the JFK Highway (formerly the Northeast Expressway) had coin-drop tolls (exact change, never staffed) on the ramps between White Marsh and Elkton. The ramp tolls were configured that drivers only had to pay one toll, either at the mainline barrier at Perryville, or at one of the entrance or exit ramps. Unfortunately, the Harford and Cecil County members got the General Assembly to pass an amendment to the Transportation Article, §4–312.1 which required MdTA to remove those ramp tolls.

Somehow the idea has been promoted that tolls are mainly for long-distance travelers while commuters should use the roads for free (or at least a reduced rate).

Agreed. Though there are no commuter discounts on Md. 200.

Can we assume that "Section 200" of this project is dead?

I don't know. It may depend on what kind of revenue the MdTA collects from customers on Section 100.

by C P Zilliacus on Nov 5, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

I have tried to compare the numbers in the TollRoadNews article with the original 2006 traffic predictions. It's not an easy comparison to make, because the phasing of the project opening is different from what was anticipated in 2006, and the article gives the average of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday while the predictions were five-day averages.

MdTA has toll road patronage for all of its tolled facilities by day for each day of the week (currently through the end of September). They are available online here if you want to do the calculation yourself. Probably in the interest of simplicity, they only show total transactions - they do not break-down traffic into the various toll classes (such as multi-axle trucks, which pay higher rates).

by C P Zilliacus on Nov 5, 2013 2:56 pm • linkreport

CPZ - Thanks! I lost quite a bit of time looking unsuccessfully for this data set. No promises as to when I'll have time to work with it.

by Ben Ross on Nov 5, 2013 3:05 pm • linkreport

@Awitc

I've heard of no particular set of development projects that the toll road North of Baltimore is meant to support. Most of the development in Baltimore seems to be focused in the core and I don't see how this toll road integrates well with that plan...unless the plan is to have people drive ever greater distances to reach the new development in the core, which would be a terrible plan.

The Baltimore red line is an infrastructure project that better aligns with the city's growth plan because it provides transportation directly where the growth is planned. This MD toll road would be like expanding 66 outside the beltway to support growth in downtown DC... doesn't make sense.

by Falls Church on Nov 5, 2013 3:36 pm • linkreport

If MdTA can't pay the interest on the bonds with its toll revenue who pays? Not the state?

by BTA on Nov 5, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

Holy hell, I just read in the that linked Toll Road News article that these toll lanes are THREE YEARS behind schedule?! Wow, talk about driving up costs. It also states that the cost overruns are NOT due to inflation as construction costs actually DECREASED during that time. Also, it states that these toll lanes will not connect to the Baltimore Beltway at the new four level 695/95 interchange. All that money and they don't even connect to the Beltway? Maybe I read that wrong, but that seems like a huge oversight and will cost them traffic and, thus, revenue.

by ArchStanton on Nov 5, 2013 4:24 pm • linkreport

wrt the opening line of the piece it's somewhat disingenuous to say "highway planners predicted" ... when the reality is that the decision to do HOT lanes on I-95 was a political decision by the Ehrlich Administration and the planners (MDP/SHA/MDOT) had to go along or lose their jobs.

Yes, there isn't the kind of demand for "growth" in that section of Baltimore or Harford Counties, nor horrendous congestion, that would justify a major expansion project and the inclusion of toll lanes on that stretch of I-95 where it would be likely that the cost of this infrastructure "investment" would be worth it from the standpoint of revenue and congestion reduction.

Arguably, you can make the case for such lanes in NoVA, but given the history of the toll roads in that general area, it's not likely to be the case.

Again, the decision to build those lanes was more political (out of the general ideology of Virginia as it relates to Public Private Partnerships and private sector infrastructure projects) than it was "objective" "planning."

ArCo got a lot of pushback (by the Wash. Post editorial page, etc.) for their fight against HOT lanes in ArCo (GGW supported ArCo sure) but ArCo framed the opposition in terms of how their position was consistent with the county's Master Transportation Plan which is focused on reducing single occupancy vehicle trips, rather than increasing them, which is what "Lexus Lanes" do.

These kinds of lanes can work in Southern California (like SR-91) which already have great demand and are greatly congested. That being said, many toll lane projects in California have gone bankrupt and have been bailed out or acquired by the public sector, including SR-91.

by Richard Layman on Nov 5, 2013 4:44 pm • linkreport

This MD toll road would be like expanding 66 outside the beltway to support growth in downtown DC... doesn't make sense.

Not quite. Downtown DC does not have room for more cars - street network at capacity, and needs to have LESS parking to have room to grow.

I haven't been in downtown Baltimore at rush hour in some years, but I suspect its not quite at that level of congestion.

It's not development focused the way much transit infra is - but simple congestion relief (when priced to minimize induced trips!) isn't necessarily bad. OTOH Richard L says above this corridor was not that congested. So.

Re HOT lanes on the beltway - on the one hand, I tend to think that adding more SOV trips into Tysons is problematic for Tysons. OTOH there are several projects (see the infamous table 7) that are designed to make it easier to bring SOVs into Tysons, in accord with the notion that Tysons growth must mean more SOV growth, and that the new street network will accommodate it. And those projects involve adding capacity that is NOT priced. I would definitely rank the HOT lanes above most of those.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 5, 2013 5:01 pm • linkreport

AWITC -- I just don't know Tysons and congestion in NoVA well enough to be able to predict that HOT lanes are good or bad.

Regardless of all the statements about how bad "the congestion" is in our metropolitan area, especially on the Beltway, it's nothing like Los Angeles. SoCal and other similarly constrained or hyper congested situations might be some of the only places where HOT lanes can get enough patronage to sort of pay off.

A lot of the drive for PPP has been the low cost of money and foreign firms like Macquirie Bank.

2. Note that the toll project for tunnel expansion in Hampton Roads has made it through a court challenge that went to the VA Supreme Court.

by Richard Layman on Nov 5, 2013 5:13 pm • linkreport

Aren't they adding toll lanes on I-95 from Springfield to fredericksburg which is 6x's longer than the toll lanes project in NE Baltimore....

by Rick on Nov 5, 2013 5:49 pm • linkreport

@Rick

There are also a LOT more people/jobs in that corridor than North of Baltimore. I think there were better options, but the 95 HOT lanes will exceed the usage on these 95 lanes considerably.

by Kyle-W on Nov 5, 2013 6:12 pm • linkreport

If MdTA can't pay the interest on the bonds with its toll revenue who pays? Not the state?

In legal terms, nobody, and especially not Maryland taxpayers.

MdTA's bonds are secured by the revenue it collects from users of its toll roads, toll crossings, parking decks (at BWI and at some Metro stations in Prince George's County) and other transportation assets. Like many other toll road operators in the U.S., the bonds issued by MdTA are not faith and credit bonds, which means that bondholders cannot look to Maryland taxpayers if MdTA were unable to pay them. See Transportation Article §4–319 for details.

by C P Zilliacus on Nov 5, 2013 9:14 pm • linkreport

Is there a non-compete clause on the HOT lanes in Virginia that would interfere with a potential transit investment there?

I feel like Fairfax County is already overdue for another rail project, or even a true BRT investment.

by Solution Giver on Nov 7, 2013 3:44 pm • linkreport

SG

IIUC the non-compete prevents VDOT from adding unpriced lanes on the beltway for the life of the contract (which is what 50 years? 75 years?) They can add lanes to other N-S roads (like gallows, or prosperity, or FFX cty parkway. And there is nothing that would stop them from adding transit.

I dont think there is any prospect of more lanes being added to the beltway any time soon (you get increasing ROW costs as you push wider and youd have to rebuild all those bridges AGAIN). And to add unpriced highway capacity there does not seem like a good idea.

FFX county is looking at adding investment to leverage the hot lanes as BRT - for example transit lanes on Braddock road are planned which would feed to the HOT lane entrance at Braddock.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 7, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

to add

in the short run the most likely major transit investment in the corridor would be seperated ROW on Gallows Road - probably bus first, than LRT later.

But the kind of density and growth in Tysons that would justify adding yet MORE lanes to the beltway might very well justify a heavy rail investment.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 7, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

Who made the traffic projections for these lanes? The same thing happened with the ICC traffic projections. Who made those projections? It also happens in other places, notably in Texas and Australia. And what about the cost estimates?

It seems like nobody questions any of these things. Doesn't it seem as though somebody should? Because this practice of underestimating costs and overestimating usership, is really getting expensive.

Has anybody called out the estimators and asked any questions?

by Bob Bruhns on Nov 8, 2013 9:27 pm • linkreport

Transportation unfortunately seems to involve loss. I see a lot of people talking about transit, but I often see light rail trains running with 1-2 people on the entire train, or buses running empty? We loose money on those as well?

I don't think those things need to go away, but spread out the criticism.

by Greg on Dec 1, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

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