As first stretch of ICC opens, cost a concern
Drivers planning ways to use new toll road without breaking the bank
This story was corrected on Feb. 16, 2011. An explanation follows the story.
As the first segment of the Intercounty Connector opens later this month, drivers are looking for ways to save money on what many think will be a costly toll road.
For some, it means purchasing E-ZPasses, which are required for the road, from different states at a lower cost. For others, it means varying commuting routes.
"I might use it once in a great while when I'm planning to go some place in Silver Spring," said Ken Weiss, first vice president of the Greater Shady Grove Civic Alliance and a Derwood resident. "Certainly not very often, but I'll at least try it."
The Intercounty Connector is an 18.8-mile, $2.6 billion road that will connect Gaithersburg to Laurel. Tolls are a key part of the road's funding, and the Maryland Transportation Authority projects revenue of about $1.5 million for the current fiscal year from the first opened segment of the ICC, a 7-mile stretch from Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg to Route 97 in Olney, of which 5.65 miles is tolled. Drivers will be able use the first segment between Feb. 22 and March 6 at no charge and the state projects about 21,500 vehicle trips per day on that stretch.
John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said although the tolls are high, the road will provide an option for drivers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. A survey issued by AAA in December 2010 showed 54 percent in favor of having more paved roads like the ICC.
"We lose 70 hours a year being stuck in traffic," he said. "While it's expensive, people are to the point where they're willing to pay for toll roads. People are willing to pay more if it means being able to extricate oneself from bumper-to-bumper traffic."
The tolls for cars and light trucks are 25 cents per mile during peak hours, 20 cents per mile during off-peak hours and 10 cents per mile during overnight hours a commuter traveling the full length of the ICC one way could pay $6.60 per trip during rush hour. Drivers who use the road without an E-ZPass will be charged an additional $3. Also, the Maryland Transportation Authority may adjust toll rates to manage traffic congestion and meet revenue needs.
The authority will provide at least 10 days' notice of any change to the pricing that might occur once travel patterns are assessed.
Another provision is that tolls are rounded up to the nearest nickel. For example, a one-way trip on the first segment of the ICC in rush hour comes out to about $1.41. But according to the authority, that trip would cost $1.45.
Harold M. Bartlett, acting executive secretary for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said there were no complaints about rounding up the toll rates during a 60-day public comment period in 2009.
"We could have rounded it to the nearest dime and quarter, but we didn't," he said. "We tried to go to the lowest common denominator."
Bartlett said the toll rates also could have been rounded to the nearest penny, but would not have produced round figures.
Kelly L. Melhem, deputy director of communications for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said during the 60-day public comment period, state officials received feedback relating to concerns about the ICC.
She said out of about 400 people, 74 percent of respondents said the initial toll ranges a 25-cent to 35-cent range for peak hours and a 20-cent to 30-cent range for off-peak hours were too high; 16 percent did not comment on the toll ranges; 8 percent said they were just right and 2 percent said they were too low.
Following the public comment period, the authority added a new overnight pricing period and made other minor changes, but toll rates for peak and off-peak hours remained the same.
"We think it's very competitively priced," Bartlett said. "We think it's a good value for the toll that you pay."
Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville, who serves on the state House of Delegates Ways and Means committee, said he is concerned county residents will not use the ICC because of the high toll rates.
"We spent a lot of money on the highway, and it would be a waste if it ends up empty pavement," he said. "My hope is still to bring down the tolls a bit and bring it down for more people."
The original story had an incorrect figure for the Maryland Transportation Authority's projected revenue.