2021 | Transportation

UPDATED: Toll rates approved for I-270/I-495 widening project

Rates are calculated per mile, will depend on EZ-Pass use, traffic conditions

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The Maryland Transportation Authority board approved toll rates Thursday for a proposed project to widen I-270 and part of I-495. This chart shows the first phase of the project.

Maryland Department of Transportation

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 18, 2021, to include comments from Del. Jared Solomon. It was updated again at 7:45 p.m. to include comments from County Executive Marc Elrich.

The Maryland Transportation Authority’s board has approved rates for toll lanes in Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to widen I-270 and part of I-495.

The rates would apply to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, and would vary based on whether motorists have an EZ-pass.

Passenger vehicles (with two axles) would pay varying amounts, and have a “minimum toll rate range,” a “soft rate cap” or the “maximum toll rate range.” The tolls are calculated per mile, based on overall traffic, vehicle speed and other factors. 

The soft-rate cap is “a per-mile toll rate within each toll rate range that can only be exceeded when vehicle speed is reduced, or traffic volumes increase, to predetermined speed and throughput thresholds,” the MDTA stated. The “minimum toll rate range” is to ensure that vehicles using the lanes are charged no matter how far they travel, to help pay for construction costs.

The “maximum toll rate range” is the highest a vehicle can be charged per mile.

“Overhead tolling gantries will be placed within each tolling segment along Phase 1 South: American Legion Bridge I-270 to I-370,” the MDTA wrote in an announcement. “The toll rates are determined on a segment-by-segment basis and summed to form a trip. The toll rate per mile may vary within each tolling segment based on traffic conditions, resulting in higher rates in more congested segments and lower rates in less congested segments.”

The I-270 and I-495 project includes reconstructing the American Legion Bridge and constructing two high-occupancy toll (HOT) managed lanes in each direction from the southern end of I-270 to I-370.

The MDTA board approved the proposed toll rates on Thursday, after months of public comment. Proponents of the project, including Hogan, say it is the only legitimate, immediate way to reduce traffic congestion along I-270 and I-495 around the American Legion Bridge.

Opponents argue that the project would not result in long-term traffic relief, and that the tolls would be costly to middle- to lower-class residents and families. Some have called the HOT lanes “Lexus Lanes” because of that economic argument. 

Here are some of the toll rate changes, per mile, the MDTA Board approved Thursday:

  • For a two-axle passenger vehicle with an EZ-Pass, the “minimum toll rate range” is $0.17, “soft rate cap” is $1.50 and the “maximum toll rate range” is $3.76
  • The toll rate increases climb as axles are added to the vehicle. The most expensive is for a six-plus-axle vehicle, with a “minimum toll rate range” of $1.28, “soft rate cap” of $11.25 and “maximum roll rate range” of $28.22
  • Those using the pay-by-plate system, without an EZ-Pass, would be charged more. For a two-axle passenger vehicle, the “minimum toll rate change” is $0.21, “soft rate cap” is $1.88 and “maximum toll rate range” is $4.70
  • The most expensive category is video tolling, but those with plates not registered for the pay-by-plate system. For a two-axle passenger vehicle, that’s $0.26 for the “minimum toll rate range,” $2.25 for the “soft rate cap” and $5.64 for the “maximum toll rate range” 
  • Carpools or vanpools with three or more people in the vehicle, also known as a high-occupancy vehicle, would not pay for the tolls. Neither would motorcycles or buses. 

As part of their announcement, MDTA officials provided scenarios of how the tolls would apply.

For example, a plumber based in Tysons Corner, Va., responding to an emergency call at the National Cancer Institute in Shady Grove at 1 p.m. would pay roughly $3.72 using the HOT lanes, and save up to 10 minutes on their trip.

A veteran living in Falls Church, Va., with an 3:30 p.m. appointment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda would pay about $5.85 using the HOT lanes, and shave up to 21 minutes off their trip.

A researcher, traveling from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to McLean, Va., for a 9:30 a.m. speech at a biotech start-up, would spend about $4.03 on the HOT lanes and save roughly 14 minutes on their trip. 

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Chevy Chase) said in an interview that he is concerned about the rates. In busy times, a 12-mile trip could cost $18 to $20, Solomon said.

MDTA’s analyses and examples to date are averages, and do not account for rush-hour traffic, when lanes are usually busiest, he said.

“The concern that I always have is … there has not been an analysis of, specifically, tolls during rush hour. … Of course, the average is going to be low when you have people driving on a toll lane at 11 at night,” Solomon said.

County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview that the proposed tolls were “extraordinarily high.”

“Working-class and middle-income people would be challenged to pay that at rush hour. … That’s a huge bite out of people’s incomes,” Elrich said. 

In August, the state’s Board of Public Works gave some approvals for the project, including: 

  • The state will enter into a predevelopment contract with Accelerate Maryland Partners. That is the coalition of private companies that would work with the state on engineering and design work to build the project. The coalition includes Transurban, the Australian-based company that would operate the tolls.
  • A 60-year lease was signed between the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority, a piece needed to allow toll lanes between the American Legion Bridge and Frederick.

The Board of Public Works still needs to approve other aspects, including a construction contract for the project.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com