By KARINE ABALYAN
Capital News Service
Criticized in the past as a program that favors the affluent population and often referred to as Lexus Lanes
WASHINGTON - A loosening of federal regulations could make it easier for Maryland to realize its statewide network of express toll lanes, Transportation Secretary Robert Flanagan told the U.S. Department of Transportation Wednesday.
"We only have a limited right of way," said Flanagan to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission in Washington, D.C., stressing that the best way to deal with congested highways is not to build more roads but to create variably priced toll lanes on existing roads.
Such lanes would give drivers the option of paying more to use a fast-moving lane when traffic is heavy, but they cannot be built in areas where the federal government requires Maryland to operate high-occupancy vehicle lanes, the secretary said.
The state will try to work around federal HOV regulations, which were put in place to reduce congestion and improve air quality by encouraging people to carpool, but "flexibility in federal regulations" would be a help, Flanagan said.
Maryland will charge all vehicles using the express lanes, unlike Virginia, which plans to operate similar variably priced toll lanes without charging carpoolers.
"We did that because we have only so much room," Flanagan said. "We cannot sufficiently separate the toll lanes from free lanes."
Criticized in the past as a program that favors the affluent population and often referred to as Lexus Lanes, Flanagan said the project will benefit all commuters.
"Our minimum goal is we do not want to prejudice people in the free lane," he said.
By giving buses access to the express lane, he said, the state will improve its public transit and help those who cannot afford to pay for the lanes reach their destination quickly.
In addition, the toll lanes will free up other lanes, making the commute more comfortable for all drivers, Flanagan said.
"Priced lanes are becoming increasingly accepted by the driving public," said Ken Orski, editor and publisher of "Innovation Briefs," publications that focus on transportation.
"The term Lexus Lanes . . . is really disappearing from usage," Orski said, calling Maryland's plan "a fresh approach to expanding highway capacity."
But Michael Replogle, transportation director of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, warned that toll initiatives could create more pollution in the Washington region.
Flanagan added that public-private partnerships, which the state hopes will help finance variably priced tolls, "could be helpful but they're certainly not going to pay the bills." Nor will revenue from the toll suffice, he said.
Maryland has already begun construction on four express toll lanes on a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 95 north of Baltimore and plans to expand the idea to the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore Beltway.