Op-Ed: How to Make the Most of Maryland’s HOT Lane Proposal

September 29, 2017

On September 21, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced a transportation plan that would add two high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT) lanes in each direction to the portion of the Capital Beltway in his state, along with the entire length of I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The HOT lanes would allow for vehicles with three or more passengers to ride for free, and those with two or fewer to pay a toll for a congestion-free trip. Without a doubt, this would transform transportation in the state.

Examples from other parts of the country demonstrate that HOT lanes can be good for regional transportation. (In particular, Virginia’s portion of the Capital Beltway installed similar HOT lanes in 2012.) Bonding backed by future toll revenues means that roadways expand capacity without over-reliance on state budgets. Variable tolls ensure that no matter the time of day, drivers have the option of a congestion-free trip when they need one. The “high occupancy” encourages carpooling by giving those vehicles a free ride, and provides a quick route for local and intercity buses.

But a good HOT lane project has to be done carefully. And although ambitious, the proposal from Governor Hogan is light on details. Based on best practices from around the world, Maryland should include the following when developing its plan:

Make transit an integral aspect of the program

Advocates for public transit and dense land development rightly worry additional lanes will encourage sprawl and induce more roadway congestion. But HOT lanes are a natural fit for public transit, as buses are by definition high occupancy vehicles. As part of the project, Maryland should rethink its regional bus network and use the HOT lanes as a way to increase reliability, efficiency, and provide affordable transit for citizens that cannot or do not want to pay the toll. The project should also require a portion of the toll revenue be dedicated to transit operations, whether that be an enhanced bus network or for the Purple Line rail system that will follow most of the I-495 route. Transit advocates need to be at the table and ensure that efficient transportation and land use are the key aspect of the strategy.

Allow for a public-sector build option

Governor Hogan has mistakenly indicated that the project must be a public-private partnership (P3), where a private company would design, build, funding, and operate the roadway for three or more decades. A P3 is a great way to transfer risk and costs away from the public sector. Virginia and other states have successfully built hundreds of miles of HOT lanes by allowing the private company to invest their own money and retain the toll revenues. But Maryland DOT is full of smart and capable engineers that can undoubtedly build the HOT lanes using the traditional method. The Governor needs to be clear that the P3 is only one option. The public sector should put together an internal estimate, and only sign a P3 agreement if the bids from private concessionaires are better value than what the public sector can deliver. By keeping the door open to a traditional, public-sector procurement, private companies will be more motivated to compete.

Only add one HOT lane in each direction

Those that regularly travel on I-495 and I-270 know that they cut through one of the densest parts of the state. To build four new lanes, as proposed, the state will inevitably need to take land from nearby property owners, setting up a long legal battle with homeowners and businesses and adding significant costs to the project. A more realistic and affordable project would to include only two lanes (one in each direction). This will significant reduce the cost and land taking, as well as assuage the fears of those fearful of sprawl and unsustainable growth. For a good section of I-270, HOV lanes already exist, and the project could convert these to HOT lanes without much cost and legal trouble. Even one lane in each direction will have transformational effects on mobility in the region.

The Beltway and I-270 will always be notoriously congested as long as there is a healthy economy, and planners have long realized that road building does not solve the problem. But managed lanes are not the same as widening the freeways. This project provides an opportunity to improve transportation options in the region, and to leverage the ability to have a congestion-free lane available for transit and for commuters that need it. Leaving citizens without options is not a viable long-term solution for the economic health of the region. Thinking about how the project holistically affects the entire transportation network will ensure that Maryland encourages sustainable and equitable economic growth.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official positions taken by the Eno Center for Transportation.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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