Maryland needs more rail, not more toll lanes

Morning commuters wait for the MARC and Amtrak trains before 7 a.m. at the New Carrollton Metro station in Hyattsville in 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has proposed an immense program of highway building, with motorists tapped as the main source of funds. He seeks to add “Lexus lanes” — toll lanes in the center of congested highways — to the Beltway, Interstate 270, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and a stretch of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. Beyond that, he wants to build a third bridge crossing over the Chesapeake Bay and a four-lane bridge across the Potomac on U.S. 301.

The governor promises that tolls will pay for all of this. That means driving won’t be cheap. From Frederick to Shady Grove, the only section for which the State Highway Administration has estimated construction costs, we calculate that the rush-hour toll would need to be $41 one-way. State officials have not challenged this calculation.

Beltway tolls would be even higher. A 2004 SHA study found that adding four lanes would require double-decking, with ramps soaring 80 feet into the air. The cost of building this elevated structure while traffic moves beneath, the agency said, would be “prohibitive.”

If drivers find the price too high, the new lanes won’t get much use. In that quite likely event, the revenue won’t cover the construction expense. Taxpayers no doubt would be asked to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, plans for long-overdue upgrades of our transit network sit neglected on engineers’ shelves. While the governor, under intense pressure, let the Purple Line go forward, he stopped work on Baltimore’s Red Line project and the badly needed light rail from Branch Avenue to Waldorf.

Progress stalled, too, on the 2007 plan for the MARC commuter rail system. This envisioned MARC running all day in both directions between Union Station and Frederick, Brunswick and Camden Yards. Trains to Baltimore’s Penn Station would be on a subway-like schedule, every 20 minutes even outside rush hour.

Taken together, these transit investments could create an interconnected rail network serving counties with 85 percent of the state’s population. The price tag, about $8 billion by the most recent official estimates, is a fraction of the tens of billions that the toll roads would cost.

The choice between toll lanes and railroad tracks is not just about transportation. It is about the kind of community we want to build, about fundamentally different visions of Maryland’s future.

The highway-building plan is premised on the continued spread of tract housing across the countryside. Ever-longer drives to distant workplaces create ever-increasing traffic to fill the new roadways. Without good transit options, commuters must either pony up the high tolls or sit in traffic jams. A heavy burden, in time and in money, weighs down on family life.

With the rail network, growth can cluster around the stations and create the walkable downtowns where many of today’s young families want to live. They can take the train to work, run errands on foot, and drive only when it’s convenient. Stores are around the corner, neighbors meet on the sidewalk, and children walk to school.

Travel takes a smaller share of household budgets; families have more time together. The air is cleaner and streams are less polluted. Farms and forests are preserved.

This opens a path to economic prosperity by attracting the good jobs of the future. As Marriott and Amazon have shown us, revived downtowns around rail stations are where employers want to locate. Local business thrives as paychecks circulate close to home instead of going out of state to buy cars and pay for gasoline.

If Maryland goes ahead with toll highways, it will make a multibillion-dollar gamble with a highly uncertain payoff. There is a far better alternative. Investing in a comprehensive rail network will create a permanent foundation for prosperity and a better quality of life.

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