A report released Tuesday adds Maryland’s plan to expand three highways at a cost of $9 billion to a national list of “highway boondoggles,” and raises concerns about the ability of tolls to pay the cost of construction.
“We need to be smarter about how we spend our transportation dollars. Now and in the future, Maryland should have less pollution, less gridlock and more public transit,” Emily Scarr, Maryland PIRG foundation director, said in a statement. “We have the tools to build a better transportation system. We just need to use them.”
The plan calls for spending $7.6 billion to add four new lanes to Interstate 495 and Interstate 270. The state, if the federal government agrees to transfer the Baltimore Washington Parkway to the state, plans to spend $1.4 billion to add four lanes to Interstate 295.
Gov. Larry Hogan, as quoted in The Washington Post, has said the expansion “won’t cost us tax dollars” because the expansions would be done via a public-private partnership. Maryland PIRG argues that’s misleading because the project’s own documents show federal loans and funds will be sought for the project.
Amelia Chassé, spokeswoman for the Hogan administration, via email, argued the state’s executive has spent more on transit projects than any other governor in Maryland’s history. That includes $5 billion on the Purple Line light rail that will run between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and signed legislation into law funding $167 million annually for Washington’s Metro system. Maryland’s Consolidated Transportation Plan, according to Chassé, includes $3.4 billion for transit and over $1.5 billion for Metro.
“Simply put, our administration is working to help people go about their commutes and daily lives more efficiently and spend less time sitting in traffic. In order to achieve that goal, improvements to relieve congestion on our highways are essential, along with expanded transit options like the Purple Line and Metro improvements,” Chassé wrote.
According to the report, the planned expansions could also cost Maryland taxpayers money via tolls. The plan calls for the expansion of I-495 and I-270 to be built via public-private partnership. The private company that builds the highways would then collect tolls for access to these express lanes. The Maryland Transportation Authority would build the expansion of I-295, which would be toll lanes.
Maryland PIRG argues that projects across the country that depend on toll revenue to pay for costs have failed to raise enough revenue, “For example, tolls have not come close to covering the construction costs of additional lanes built for I-95 north of Baltimore.”
Maryland, which according to the report owed $5.2 billion in highway debt at the end of 2015, owes five times as much debt, not adjusting for inflation, for highway bonds than it did in 2000.
The report argues Maryland would be better spent fixing and improving Baltimore Metro, funding MARC commuter rail, building better urban transit like the abandoned Red Line light rail project in Baltimore, and repairing existing roads in bridges.
This article has been updated to include a response from Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration.