Good Morning, Frederick: Ready to pay $82 for a fast round trip to work in the Metro area? Larry Hogan's plan to privatize new toll lanes on I-270 figures to cost that, even just based on Virginia's experience today. Better rail is a better idea, transit expert/advocate Ben Ross points out, than Lexus Lanes -- which could cost you $159 for every hour you save in the morning rush.
Lexus Lanes on I-270?
/By Ben Ross<>Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition/ Will most commuters be able to use the toll lanes that Governor Hogan wants to build on I-270 or will they be Lexus Lanes only the wealthiest Marylanders can afford? The State Highway Administration rejects the Lexus Lane claim, but their explanation doesn’t add up.
We calculated that the rush-hour toll between Frederick and Shady Grove would have to be $41 ($82 daily round-trip) to pay for the cost of building the lanes. SHA suggests that a better guide to future tolls is Virginia’s experience with its toll lanes on I-95 and the Beltway.
So let’s look at how the toll lanes are working in Virginia. Fortunately, SHA and we are not the only ones examining this topic. Professor Donna Chen of the University of Virginia has been studying the tolls drivers pay on those roads.
Professor Chen found that at the peak of rush hour – 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning and 4:30 to 6:00 in the evening – Beltway tolls run between $1.50 and $1.80 per mile (somewhat lower on Fridays). If drivers pay the same rate on I-270 the cost of a 25-mile trip from Frederick to Shady Grove would be between $37.50 and $45.00. Per-mile tolls on I-95 are usually lower, but they too are hardly inexpensive.
Another way to look at this is the cost of time gained by using the faster-moving toll lanes. Professor Chen has calculated this too, in a paper she presented in May. Drivers using the Beltway toll lanes can expect to pay $159 to save an hour of travel time during the morning rush hour and $101 in the evening. (Tolls and traffic delays vary; on any one trip the cost of time saved is equally likely to be above or below these numbers.)
Time saved on I-95 is less expensive, but far from cheap. On the Fairfax County section of the road, an hour saved costs $107 in the morning and $71 on the way home. In Prince William and Stafford Counties, the price is somewhat lower: $77 and $39.
These prices are all way above what the average commuter can afford on a daily basis. What, then, will the toll lanes do if they aren’t Lexus lanes but they won’t make daily commutes faster? The best SHA can offer on its website is that they will “provide more options for those needing to make critical decisions regarding reliable trip time.” At least for those who can afford to pay the tolls.
For everybody else, that's not much of a reason to spend billions of dollars and tear up neighborhoods. Maryland should focus on solutions accessible to all Marylanders and not just the wealthy few. A good place to start is with a third track on the MARC line to Frederick so that trains can run both ways all day.
Still, there is one good argument against calling the I-270 toll lanes Lexus Lanes. It comes from Delegate Eric Luedtke. “At these prices they aren’t Lexus Lanes. They’re Lamborghini Lanes.”
Ben Ross chairs the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and is author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.