Opinion: Note the red flags on the I-495 and I-270 private toll lane plan

Traffic on the Capital Beltway near the American Legion Bridge. WTOP photo by Dave Dildine.

By Brian Ditzler

The author is a member Maryland advocate for sustainable transportation, a coalition of more than 20 advocacy groups concerned about former Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to widen I-495 and I-270. MAST supports strategies that address the climate crisis and transport issues.

Article after article has sounded the alarm about former Gov. Hogan’s toll road plan and its fundamental flaws and risks. Public advocates and elected officials have repeatedly exposed the false claims used to justify the state’s 50-year, mega-billion dollar partnership with Australia’s toll giant Transurban.

Not surprisingly, the project is not popular. In Montgomery County, ground zero for phase one, 54% oppose the toll lanes, compared to 40% for it, according to a September 2022 Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. Both Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have criticized the excessive tolls and other aspects of the project. Even candidates supporting the toll lanes tried to walk away from the issue.

But the toll lane plan is progressing. State, regional and federal gatekeepers have approved the project one at a time without conducting proper due diligence. Proponents, including PACS and lobbyists, are using their considerable resources to spread the false narrative that the tollway system is the only answer to the region’s traffic problems.

In fact, the project would increase suffering. It would create even more bottlenecks and result in numerous damages. There is no repair. The flaws are burned in. There are now a number of viable alternatives to address the challenges of regional transport. These include the expansion of local transport; Expansion of the highly successful I-270 Innovative Congestion Management System; reversible lanes; improved access to HOV lanes; and more. The American Legion Bridge can be upgraded with federal and state funds and no tolls.

We urge the Moore government to immediately side with the common good and announce the end of the private toll lane plan. The private toll lanes would be one of the most unfair, backward, and wasteful highway projects in the United States

The commitment to the public is enormous.

The arguments of the project’s supporters are wrong

The plan would Not everyone benefits. Without persistent traffic jams in the free lanes, the project’s business model fails completely. Traffic jams would spur the richest to flee onto the outrageously expensive toll lanes. New bottlenecks at the junctions where the toll lanes end would greatly increase congestion for everyone and “require” more government contracts to build more toll lanes.

The environment would be harmed Not be sufficiently alleviated. The project would have profound, irreversible adverse impacts on public health, air and water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, resilience to climate hazards, as well as adjacent communities, natural habitats, parks and historical sites.

The project would Not come at no cost to the taxpayer. The private concessionaire is contractually guaranteed a high margin (internal rate of return), and any shortfalls—plus costly compensation and relief measures—would be a burden on Maryland taxpayers for the next 50 years. The multibillion-dollar project cost has risen 20% over the past two years, according to Gov. Hogan, and it will be taxpayers who pay the exorbitant tolls that are expected to escalate by 2.1% annually PLUS CPI inflation.

Not all free lanes would remain free. Two publicly owned, publicly paid HOV lanes on I-270 would be turned over to Transurban for private toll collection. The proceeds would not benefit Maryland but the shareholders of a private conglomerate.

The highways would be less sure with toll lanes. The remaining free lanes would be crammed with the vast majority of large trucks and commercial vehicles intermixing with passenger cars. According to reports on the project’s interstate access, drivers in the open lanes would experience additional weaving, locally narrower cross sections, the loss of a left lane shoulder, and more merging and diverging access points. All are recipes for accidents, as Northern Virginia’s experience with private toll lanes clearly demonstrates. Making access to safer lanes conditional on ability to pay is a major equity and environmental justice issue.

Profit over public interest

Transurban has already secured a contractual right of first refusal for private toll lane extensions, essentially guaranteeing a monopoly position. The first phase of the Maryland project is approximately 15 miles long. But over 70 miles of toll lanes are promised to the private concessionaire if the construction contract is signed.

In Virginia, the public-private partnership that began with 14 miles of toll lanes has grown to 65 miles of toll lanes in a decade, and 10 more are in the pipeline. Such expansion has already taken place where Transurban is dominant in Australia.

The private toll lane model relies on continuous expansion and “improvement”. Currently, Virginia’s I-495 Southside Express Lanes Study proposes toll lanes from Virginia to Prince George’s County via the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Transurban is openly talking about circling the capital region with toll lanes and then moving on to the US market.

Transurban has said it’s not so much the first toll lane segment in Maryland that it’s excited about as having Maryland as a long-term customer. This is a major problem for Maryland motorists and taxpayers, because a private company would have overwhelming power to drive, influence, and dictate our transportation and other investments.

Local control will disappear

It is wishful thinking that once a construction contract is signed with Transurban and its partners, local or state politicians could remain in control of the toll road project. Politicians have spoken of their desire to lower tolls and make other adjustments. But that won’t work if the state doesn’t continue to subsidize the private toll lanes. Exorbitant toll rates are already established and referenced in the phase contract – the main contract for the toll lanes – which was approved by the Board of Public Works without proper financial and legal review. To see how the expectation of local control falls short, look at the inability of local authorities to control toll road operators in Australia.

The lack of transparency will remain

The public and their representatives need accurate information about public projects on an ongoing basis. But public-private partnerships on toll roads like this operate on the basis of misinformation, false promises, and secrecy. They thrive when there is a lack of transparency and accountability. The state didn’t provide a clear explanation for why it changed its traffic model results, even after federal experts said they couldn’t determine if some of the changes were plausible. Without a credible traffic model, the state has no basis for claiming that the toll lanes will relieve congestion.

Maryland’s “partnership” with a private toll lane company throws government transparency under the bus. Outside of the public, the partnership essentially turns public assets into commodities. This has already happened in Australia, with secret compensation agreements set to remain confidential until 2060.

Governor Hogan gave the Transurban team until March 2023 to complete the I-270/I-495 construction proposal. So the fate of the project now rests with Governor Moore. The immediate cessation of all work on the toll lane project is the Moore administration’s best chance to extricate itself from this inseparable, dangerous partnership and instead prioritize strategic transportation investments that efficiently, equitably, and sustainably serve present and future generations of Marylanders.

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