Monday, November 13, 2017

Toll lanes ill conceived and unworkable

Democrats like to say there isn't a roadway project that Governor Hogan doesn't like, and even if one strips partisan bias from this quip, it rings true.When the Governor announced in September that he is set to solve the region's traffic woes with more lanes on the freeways, even non-partisan observers scratched their heads in disbelief. (see my previous article here).
Lexus Lanes and sound-walls on the Springfield Interchange in Virginia

Adding lanes has been a strategy for a hundred years now, a century in which scenic roads bloated into monstrous 12 lane beltways. To make them even wider seemed preposterous. Hogan and his MDOT Secretary Rahn nevertheless sold the idea as innovative, especially since all the money is supposed to come from the private side under obscure formulas known as P3, private, public partnerships. If this sounds too good to be true, well, it is. To defy the geometrical constraints and limited space for further widening, deputy Secretary Ports went pretty far out by talking about innovative designs that do neither stack the additional lanes above existing ones (a very costly typical Los Angeles solution) nor hide them in a tunnel (like the big dig in Boston, even more costly). Instead, Ports spoke about a "half open tunnel", i.e cantilevered roadways requiring the main roadbed to be lowered (considering the Washington Beltway near Silver Spring and other tight spots, lowering under traffic seems to be the most implausible solution of all).

In the spirit of regional collaboration, today's article comes from Harvard physicist and Washington area transportation activist Ben Ross who holds a PhD from MIT and is  chair of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Ross looked a little closer at the promises, the cost and the physical restrictions for the areas where the lanes are supposed to go. He concludes that "Hogan's toll lane plan falls apart". He provided his recent article for posting on this blog.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Hogan toll lane plan falls apart under questioning

by Ben Ross

Governor Larry Hogan's plan for toll lanes on I-270, the Beltway, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway hasn't been thought through and can't do what it promises.  This became evident when Jim Ports, Maryland's deputy transportation secretary, answered questions from Montgomery County lawmakers on Thursday of last week.

Hogan and his transportation secretary, Pete Rahn, announced the plan for toll lanes running alongside the free lanes on the three roads -- what are popularly known as "Lexus lanes" -- on September 21.  They made three promises:
  • No state money will be used; private investors will earn back the construction cost with tolls.  The state might even earn a profit of billions of dollars, the Governor said.
  • All existing lanes on the three roads will remain free. Four new lanes will be added to each.
  • Demolition of existing homes and businesses will be minimal.
These claims began to unravel almost immediately.  The state was unwilling to say what the tolls would be, and in a post on the Maryland Matters blog I calculated a one-way rush-hour toll of $41 from Frederick to Shady Grove.  A State Highway Administration study from 2004 said that the only practical way to add 4 lanes to the Beltway is to double-deck it, and the cost would be "prohibitive."

Last Thursday the deputy transportation secretary came to Rockville for the annual presentation of MDOT's spending plans in Montgomery County.  Questions from state legislators fell well short of a thorough cross-examination, but Ports' answers (repeated in interviews with the county's online media outlet) gave further proof that the toll lane plan can't possibly fulfill the governor's promises.

Asked about the potential $41 toll, Ports went beyond a letter sent a few days earlier by his boss, which said simply that "This issue will be analyzed later."  He argued that "The tolls can't be too high, because no one will use it."  But this completely undercuts the claim that private investors will cover the costs.  If the tolls aren't high enough, the owners of the Lexus lanes won't make any money -- meaning that private investors won't be willing to build them in the first place.

The Grand Central Parkway in Queens, New York --
widened in 1961 using what the Hogan administration touts as
"innovative technology" from Texas
that will somehow dramatically lower highway construction costs.
Ports' response on double-decking the Beltway was equally lame. He contended that double-decking could be avoided by what he called "innovative technology" newly developed in Texas -- putting some lanes in a trench and cantilevering others above them.  But this isn't innovative at all.  The Grand Central Parkway in Queens, New York, was rebuilt this way in 1961.  It's an option that the State Highway Administration was surely aware of when it did its 2004 study.

Secretary Rahn is scheduled to appear before the County Council on November 16 to answer questions about the Lexus lane plan.  Of special interest will be the state's very questionable cost estimate of $9 billion, an issue that got little attention Thursday.  Asked  for the basis of that number, Rahn's earlier letter dodged the question, offering little more than "innovative solutions developed in other states that greatly minimized impacts through innovation."

Vague talk of innovative innovations is no substitute for engineering and financial analysis.  Unless the Hogan administration can come up with answers to the substantive questions that are being asked, Marylanders will have no reason to take its Lexus lane plan seriously.

Additional toll lane announcement (video)
Deputy Secretary Ports on the price of the tolls (video) and on the cantilever system (video)

MDOT Secretary Rahn is going to questioned by the MoCo council this Thursday afternoon.