Lexus Lanes' take toll
Leaders, motorists remain at odds over how much to charge for using the ICC
As work steamrolls along on the $2.4 billion Intercounty Connector project, focus has shifted from the ongoing construction to proposed tolls for the highway.
The cost of those tolls has some critics already dubbing the roadway "Lexus Lanes."
The tolls are proposed for a 17.5-mile stretch of the eventual 18.8-mile highway. As it stands now, cars would be charged 25 cents to 35 cents per mile during peak morning and evening rush hours, making the tolls the highest in the Washington, D.C., region. A round-trip commute covering the full 35 miles could cost $12.25 a day, or more than $3,000 a year.
Matthew Para of Laurel, said he travels into Montgomery County three or four times each week and would likely use the ICC if he was running late or if traffic was bad elsewhere. But he added that the road is just too expensive to travel regularly.
"I'd be going over a good two-thirds of it and the rates would be pretty high," Para said, adding that he would like to see even lower rates during late-night and early-morning hours when streets are especially empty.
All of the tolls would be collected electronically using an E-Z Pass, and owners of vehicles without the E-Z Pass account would be mailed a toll bill including a $3 service fee.
But for motorists who crawl along congested highways and back roads, the ease of the toll collection is of little consolation.
"The major challenge is to balance raising the revenues with the political heat," said Peter Samuel, editor and owner of trade publication TollRoadsnews.com.
Set the rates too high and few people will travel the ICC, but set them too low and not only will the ICC also become clogged with traffic, but the state will not be able to generate enough revenue to pay back the $1.23 billion in revenue bonds borrowed for the project, Samuel said.
But Michael Replogle, former transportation director for the Environmental Defense Fund and a leading critic of the ICC, said opponents had predicted the state would have to charge high tolls to pay for the project. He and other critics said the road never should have been built.
The ICC will benefit the affluent at the cost of transit services that would be used by moderate- and lower-income residents, Replogle said.
Montgomery County Council President Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg has been raising the cost of the ICC's tolls for years. He is hoping the County Council will take a position opposing the proposed tolls and issue a joint statement during the public comment period.
"The tolls proposed by the Maryland Transportation Authority would assure not only that the ICC is underused, but that they would price many people off the road and deter many of us from using the highway, undermining the goal of taking traffic off the Beltway," Andrews said. "It's completely a high-toll highway all the time. It just varies from high to very high."
The "Lexus Lanes" nickname is used on many roads across the county, Samuel said, but many lower-income and moderate-income people use the roads because they want to save time, too.
"The idea it's just for the rich is just wrong," he said. "It doesn't comport with our experience on these kinds of roads. A lot of the rich have more discretion about the time when they travel, so they don't have to take the toll roads to avoid traffic. The roads are used by regular folks. So I think that's a bit of nonsense myself."
The MTA will vote on the toll structure Dec. 17.
The state is holding a public information meeting Wednesday at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. Other hearings will be Oct. 28 at High Point High School and Oct. 29 at Shady Grove Middle School in Gaithersburg. The meetings are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m.
The public can comment at the public hearings or can submit comments in writing by 5 p.m. Nov. 23, either online at www.iccproject.com or mailing them to the ICC Project Office, Attn: ICC Tolls, 11710 Beltsville Drive, Suite 200, Beltsville, MD 20705.
Staff Writer David Hill contributed to this report.