State gives green light to contested ICC toll rates
One-way trip during rush hour could cost up to $6.60
A decision Dec. 17 to charge most cars and trucks up to 35 cents a mile at peak hours on the Intercounty Connector is "highway robbery," a Montgomery County councilwoman said.
The Maryland Transportation Authority Board voted unanimously to set the rate for rush-hour commuters between 25 cents and 35 cents the same amount the group proposed before a series of public hearings in the fall. Drivers traveling the 18.8-mile, six-lane highway outside of peak hours 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays would pay between 20 and 30 cents per mile.
Vehicles with more than two axles will be charged a higher rate. Transportation officials said they still have not decided whether to give a discount to commuter buses that may use the ICC.
A commuter traveling the full length of the Gaithersburg-to-Laurel highway would pay $6.60 per one-way trip during rush hour about $3,300 per year in tolls. State officials estimate more than half the drivers will travel about 6 miles of the highway, lowering the average cost for drivers to $2.10 a trip, or about $1,050 a year.
"I think many people understand [the toll]," said Ronald Freeland, executive secretary for the transportation authority. "When you do that math, it isn't that high."
The board will decide the exact rates before the road opens in late 2010, Freeland said.
To travel the highway, drivers must have an EZ-Pass transponder, or they will be charged an extra $3 on top of the regular toll, which will be billed to the car's owner.
The rates have drawn a fresh round of criticism for the highway, which has been tied up by environmentalists, residents and other issues for decades. Construction began last year, and the first stretch of road is scheduled to open in October or November 2010.
The cost of the project is $2.5 billion, or more than $3 billion when financing is included. Md. 200, as it has been designated, is meant to provide a direct link between Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and I-95 in Laurel, easing traffic along the Capital Beltway in northern Washington, D.C., and along east-west highways in Montgomery and Howard counties.
Opponents say the highway will create "Lexus lanes" that cater to wealthier drivers in western counties.
"I think it's highway robbery," Montgomery County Council President Nancy M. Floreen said.
"My constituents won't be able to afford it," said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Dist. 21) of Beltsville. "And they're the ones where it's running through their backyard."
Montgomery County Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg said the tolls will cause the ICC to fail, because drivers will take local roads for free instead.
"The ICC will be a boondoggle if the decision stands, because the $3 billion-plus highway will fail to take significant traffic off other roads due to very high tolls," Andrews said in a statement. "The Maryland Transportation Authority, whose members are appointed by the governor, has decided that its job is to maximize revenue rather than to facilitate use of the ICC by the general public. They seem to think that they have a captive audience; however, the ICC doesn't traverse a body of water like the Bay Bridge, and it will compete against untolled roads."
He said Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) must ensure that MTA reverses its decision on the tolls.
At public hearings, elected officials asked the authority to give discounts to frequent commuters and residents who live near the highway an idea the Montgomery County Council supported.
"The last thing we want is to discourage drivers from using the ICC," said Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park.
Transportation Secretary Beverly K. Swaim-Staley said at a meeting that those discounts would not be legal, because all drivers would not be treated equally.
While the board made a new rate for overnight travel and lowered the cost to 40 cents for people traveling less than 2 miles on the new road, it deviated little from the original proposal that drew a majority of protests against the higher rates.
In a breakdown of public comments given at hearings or sent to the board, Maryland transportation officials noted that more than 284 people said the toll rates were set too high about 74 percent of the people they say commented.
Critics included Greg Smith of the nonprofit group Community Research Inc., who said the authority's rates are far higher than what they proposed when the road was brought to the legislature in 2004.
"This was a charade, just like the whole public process with this," Smith said after the meeting Dec. 17 in Greenbelt. "It's a total bait-and-switch."
In one change from the original proposal made in September, drivers who wait to travel overnight between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. could save up to 15 cents on the electronic toll, which would cost between 10 and 20 cents per mile.
The highway will have the eighth-highest toll rate in the nation, according to figures from the transportation department.
The rates are designed to keep enough cars off the highway to avoid congestion while still raising the roughly $101 million per year needed to pay for the cost of construction and to keep the road operational, Freeland said. About $75 million will pay off the bonds used to build the highway, and $26 million will keep the road operational, Freeland said.