Pricing recommendations for I-95 express toll lanes approved

Rush-hour commuters could pay nearly $5 a day in tolls to travel back and forth on a seven-mile stretch of express toll lanes set to open next year along Interstate 95 east and north of Baltimore, according to proposed pricing approved Thursday by the board of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The new lanes, scheduled to open late next year, would offer a quicker travel option for commuters willing to pay.

The suggested tolls vary by the time of day and the type of vehicle, but a car traveling on the toll lanes during peak hours would pay between 25 cents and 35 cents per mile.

The board's unanimous vote kicks off a nearly seven-week period during which residents and commuters will have a chance to comment online, by mail and at public hearings. The comment period ends Nov. 4.

The board is scheduled to take a final vote Dec. 12 on the recommended tolls. The tolls will be set by MdTA Acting Executive Secretary Bruce Gartner, based on the board's recommendation.

Ragina Averella of AAA Mid-Atlantic welcomed the new lanes.

"They will alleviate congestion and give motorists options," she said. "While nobody is ever really happy about tolls, that being said, there are certainly other transportation options that exist if you choose not to pay those fees."

State officials estimate total daily traffic on the stretch of I-95 will be 178,000 vehicles on weekdays and 172,000 vehicles on weekends when the toll lanes open next year.

The all-electronic toll lanes, which the authority hopes to begin operating by the end of 2014, cut through the center of the high-traffic area where I-95 intersects with Interestate 695 in Rossville. The four express toll lanes, two in each direction, are located between the four southbound and four northbound general traffic lanes.

Users will be charged via E-ZPass. Those without E-ZPass transponders will be mailed a citation to be paid or contested. There will not be toll plazas.

Amy Plotts, 38, who commutes on southbound I-95 from her home in Bel Air to her job as a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said she can't wait for the toll lanes to open.

She first saw the "spaghetti maps" of the intertwining interchanges at I-95 and Interstate 695 while living in White Marsh, and since moving to Bel Air, she has endured every stage of the long construction process.

Plotts commutes with her two young children, whom her father, who lives in Baltimore, baby-sits while she works. She said she's not yet sure if she'll take the express lanes, but the idea they will ease congestion "is just music to my ears," she said.

The lanes' ongoing construction cost about a third of the $1.1 billion project to improve traffic flow and safety in the area, which also includes the ongoing restructuring of the interchange between I-95 and Route 43.

The MdTA's staff recommended the tolling structure after reviewing an independent "traffic and revenue" analysis by an outside firm that considered the value of people's time versus congestion in the area, said Dennis Simpson, the MdTA's director of capital planning.

For instance, travelers headed south in the morning will pay peak prices, as will those heading north in the afternoon. Rates decline during off-peak hours and fall lower still overnight.

On weekends, peak hours will be during the afternoon. Pricing will be raised across the board during high-traffic holiday periods.

Large tractor-trailers would be charged far more than motorcycles and two-axle cars.

Jim Smith, the state's transportation secretary and chairman of the MdTA board, said the prices are based on thorough research and are consistent with those in place at the State Highway Administration's Intercounty Connector linking Washington suburbs, which he said has been a success.

"The ICC [pricing] was determined with very, very little controversy, and it was because of all the pre-attention paid to it," Smith said. "The public should have confidence that these things are taken seriously."