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Tolls considered for I-81

January 11, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Maryland is considering tolls as a way to fund improvements of major highways, including Interstate 81 in Washington County.

"This is a philosophy we brought to a number of very high-cost projects," Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

The proposed I-81 project - which includes adding a third lane in both directions - has an estimated cost of $400 million to $450 million.

With tolls, the work could start in three or four years, but without tolls, the project wouldn't start for at least 20 to 30 years, Flanagan said.

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"It's pretty much an either-or situation," he said.

Currently, Maryland charges tolls on several bridges and tunnels.

The state has proposed charging tolls to get funds to build or improve several highways, particularly the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County.

The concept of charging highway motorists, the potential side effects and Flanagan's "either-or" assertion drew a wide range of opinions from Washington County's commissioners and state representatives.

Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., R-Frederick/Jefferson, said he supports tolls because the motorists who use a highway pay for it.

"It's sort of a user fee," Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said. "Most traffic is coming from out of state."

Neither Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, nor Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, was ready to commit to tolls, but both said they want to act before I-81 becomes saturated by traffic and turns into a "parking lot."

For Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, opposition is easy.

"We already pay enough in taxes," he said.

In between Weldon's "yes" and Mooney's "no," elected officials expressed varying shades of doubt.

Shank said there could be fallout for the local trucking industry if tolls were imposed.

Washington County Commissioner Doris J. Nipps, who wouldn't take a stance, said she's worried that secondary roads would become overloaded by motorists trying to avoid paying tolls.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he could support tolls "as long as you know the money is going to fund that project."

On that point, Weldon agreed. Before instituting tolls, Maryland must have a law prohibiting the state Transportation Trust Fund from being raided to balance the budget, which has happened before, he said.

In 20 years, or even half that, I-81 indeed might become the "parking lot" that Shank and Munson fear.

Flanagan said traffic is expected to increase by 34 percent by 2010.

Additionally, in a presentation to the County Commissioners, the State Highway Administration reported that an average of 30,000 to 62,000 vehicles used I-81 in Maryland each day in 1999.

By 2020, if the highway conditions stay the same, daily traffic would jump to an average of 55,000 to 102,000.

Approximately 34 percent of the vehicles that travel Maryland's 12-mile stretch of I-81 are trucks, the State Highway Administration report said.

Flanagan said that the section of I-81 near Interstate 70 is a "high accident" area and needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

For the section of I-81 from I-70 to just north of Halfway Boulevard, the estimated cost of planning, engineering, acquiring rights of way and construction is $230 million, Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said.

And money for that and other highway improvements is scarce.

"Right now, there is no money for new projects," Flanagan said during a visit to The Herald-Mail last fall. "When we came into office, the piggy bank was empty. It's been empty for two years now."

Initially, the State Highway Administration expected to widen I-81 on the outside lanes, which would have required 43 homes to be taken. In 2002, the plan changed, so that widening would be toward the median, requiring no more than three or four homes to be taken.

Gregory I. Snook, the president of the Washington County Commissioners, heard of Flanagan's idea for tolls when the secretary pitched it to Washington County business leaders a few months ago.

However, "I really haven't had a chance to formulate my thoughts," Snook said.

On one hand, tolls might speed up improvements - but possibly at the risk of hurting commerce, he said.

Flanagan envisions toll booths at the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders, but none in between. Motorists could travel I-81 from exit to exit within Washington County without a fee.

The state would set up E-ZPass "toll screens," which use radio transmitters to automatically deduct tolls, allowing drivers to "whiz by at highway speed" instead of stopping, Flanagan said.

Commuters would be able to buy deeply discounted fare packages - at least 80 percent off, he said. Truckers also would pay reduced fares.

The amount of a possible I-81 toll won't be decided until late 2004 or early 2005, Cahalan said.

Once that's known, the state will go back to government officials representing Washington County for their opinions.

Flanagan said those representatives will have veto power.

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