July 14, 2007

Interstate 95 to White Marsh


While transit buffs have been arguing for decades about what kind of transit system to build in the Baltimore region, the Maryland Department of Transportation has already quietly begun construction on a BILLION DOLLAR transit line between Baltimore City and White Marsh.

That's right. MDOT has dug into their deep pockets and has written a check with the "B" word, as in $1,000,000,000.00. That's a whole 'nother zero order of magnitude above what they think they want to spend on a rail transit project, such as the Red Line if that project ever gets going. It's the same number of zeros as the InterCounty Connector, which has generated way more discussion and controversy.

In contrast, the Billion Dollar line to White Marsh, whose early skeleton is framed by the suburban houses shown above, has produced practically no discussion. Yet it is literally right in our backyards.

It's commonly called "Express Toll Lanes", but make no mistake. It is a transit project because it has a potential future impact on the transportation system which is commensurate with its huge price tag.

Over the past several decades, the first die was cast regarding transit between the City and White Marsh, by the steady reductions in building density which have occurred in the White Marsh area. This has tended to make rail transit infeasible and unjustifiable. The second die was cast by the leap frogging of new development into the outer suburbia of Harford and Cecil Counties, most recently culminating in the announced major expansion of the Aberdeen military base, commonly called BRAC.

The 2002 MTA rail transit plan called for a very expensive Metro extension from Hopkins Hospital, first to Morgan University and eventually to White Marsh. But hardly anyone has talked seriously about extending Metro to White Marsh since this plan was released five years ago. Any recent discussion of regional transit in this corridor has instead centered around the MARC commuter rail line, not a conventional rail transit line.

But regardless, residents are still nervous about suburban growth, and that nervousness even extends to the developers. The owner of the retail outlet mall in Perryville, just the other side of the Susquehanna River in Cecil County, was complaining about how the toll across the I-95 Susquehanna River bridge was keeping customers away. Meanwhile, most other folks were complaining that there were too many cars on the six lane bridge, regardless of whether they were going to the outlet mall or not. Too much traffic or too little traffic? Take your pick.

All that talk has very little correlation with what MDOT is actually doing, which is spending a billion dollars on the Express Toll Lanes far to the south, to be completed in the next four years or so. This is like the day after tomorrow in transportation planning terms.

At that time, what we will have is essentially TWO (count 'em two) I-95's from White Marsh into the City, with a whole bunch of new ramps to get you there, and electronic tolls to distinguish between the Express Toll Lanes and the non-express non-toll lanes. If you've ever experienced the ramp-athon between I-95 and I-495 in Virginia with all the spaghetti to the Shirley Highway express and non-express lanes and the Capitol Beltway, you have an idea of what to expect.


The term that we ivory-tower types use for the White Marsh I-95 project is "Congestion Pricing". It is the same thing that luxury resort hotels use to keep from being overcrowded on the most popular weekends. When hotels anticipate being overbooked, they raise their prices to the extent needed to keep demand in check. This keeps people from lining up in the lobby disrupting the hotel business while waiting for a bargain room on the peak weekends, and it also tends to increase the hotel demand during the non-peak weekends. Total demand for hotel rooms thus increases, because there is no bottleneck during peak capacity times and there is increased demand during non-peak times.

In the highway business, things are apparently a lot sneakier, however, because the lanes next to the Express Toll Lanes will still be open to everyone, without a toll, so these lanes will still be allowed to get as clogged up as they can. The people who are standing still in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the free lanes will have the privilege of looking at the adjacent Express Toll lanes and having their noses rubbed in the fact that they didn't ante up to pay for the pleasure of riding congestion free.

But that is not the worst of it. The crazy part is that when the Billion Dollar Express Toll Lanes are completed, that portion of Interstate 95 will then have the highest traffic capacity and least congestion of any section of the highway. There will still be seriously increasing congestion on the sections of the highway feeding into the Express Toll lanes, but there will tend to be much less congestion, if any, on either the toll or adjacent free lanes where the new billion dollar lanes have been built.

Users of the Express Toll Lanes will have to fight the freebie riff-raff traffic in a sea of congestion just to get to the toll lanes, thus nullifying the advantage of actually using the toll lanes.

There is only one solution for this. That is, the express toll lanes must be extended well beyond the new billion dollar construction onto to the adjacent sections of the old Interstate 95 highway that exists already and are not widened. At the very least, the express toll lanes must be extended from the Fort McHenry Tunnel to the Susquehanna River bridge, which are two very well known bottlenecks.

The advantage of the congestion pricing can only be attained if it applies to the sections of the highway which are the most congested, and these highway segments will always be those that have NOT been widened.

That leads to other inevitable conclusions: To gain the benefit of the Express Toll Lanes, they should be implemented NOW. And the benefit of the toll lanes has nothing to do with spending a Billion Dollars to widen the road. The only money that needs to be spent is on the delineation and electronic management of the express toll lanes, not the widening.

Another conclusion that any manager of a decent hotel will tell you is that peak period pricing should apply to all the rooms (and all the highway lanes), not just some of them. Actually, it is not just hotel managers who can tell you that. Anyone who has taken Economics 101 from any non-Marxist professor can tell you.


What does all this have to do with transit? Well, the obvious thing is that MDOT has shot its billion dollar wad in the White Marsh corridor, leaving less money for transit. Secondly, there is still going to be plenty of congestion, unless MDOT does the unthinkable and converts the entire stretch of I-95 to congestion pricing and raises the tolls high enough to make people realize the full supply-demand cost of using the road.

If MDOT did that, the traffic volume on the road would not go down very much, because enough people would recognize that they could save a lot of money by shifting their trips to off-peak periods - just as luxury hotels still fill up when they charge their highest rates, and become even fuller than they otherwise would have during off-peak periods when they charge lower rates. But it would be too logical for MDOT to do all that.

Instead, MDOT will no doubt continue to allow I-95 to clog up and grind to a congested halt at bottleneck points, which reduces the overall traffic flow volume on the highway.

This is where transit comes in. The greatest beneficiary of congestion pricing is transit. Buses will be able to use the Express Toll Lanes in a highly cost-effective way. Never mind that they are called "Lexus Lanes", kowtowing to the rich. They are also "MTA Lanes" and "Greyhound Lanes". When a person cannot afford the toll in their private car, they will see that transit which uses the same toll lanes is a true bargain.

The Express Toll Lanes should be recognized as the best thing that could ever happen to transit in the I-95 corridor. The more congested the free lanes feeding into the Express Toll lanes are, the more pressure there will be to extend the toll lanes - immediately, rather than after a billion dollar widening project.

Even MDOT cannot remain blind forever to the golden opportunity of Express Toll Lanes for providing better transit in expressway corridors.

This should lead eventually to the realization that the mission of toll lane management and mass transit management is one and the same. MDOT now operates two MTAs. One MTA, the Maryland Transit Administration, operates the transit system. The other MTA, the Maryland Transportation Authority (often called the MdTA as if "Md" stands for something different than "M") operates the toll facilities.

The MTA and the MdTA should merge into a single agency, collecting tolls from cars and running transit on the same roads at the same time. If they make too much money (which they damn well should except for the fact that they're bureaucrats), they should give it to the State general fund so that the politicians can lower the State's other taxes. That's what is done in Delaware, the land of rip-off I-95 tolls and tax free shopping.

Maybe MDOT has thought all this through, and that is why they have been so quiet about their billion dollar entry into the world of congestion pricing, great transit and lower taxes.

Nahhhhhh.... If you recall, MDOT tried a similar ploy the last time they widened I-95 in Harford County, but with "High Occupancy Vehicles" as the ruse. They slapped up signs over the new lanes saying that at some time in the "future", the lanes would be reserved only for HOVs. Later they quietly took down the signs. But this time, the stakes are higher. Let's not get fooled again...


  1. I think it would be a big mistake to widen I-95 from the city to White Marsh. Building densities in White Marsh aside I think the Green Line, after it's extended to Morgan State University should do excatly what the Baltimore Regional Rail Report says it should; extend to White Marsh and meet the Purple Line at Martin State Airport. As far as BRAC is concerned I think Baltimore City can and should absorb the population influx. All this new heavy rail construction would be underground to give it its own right of way.

  2. Sorry, but you're too late, Spence. The billion dollar widening of I-95 to White Marsh is already happening. It is under construction NOW. The State has chosen to spend that billion on a highway instead of transit, so we'll just have to make the best of it. But if the Green Line extension was built underground as you prefer, a billion dollars wouldn't get it very far past Morgan State toward White Marsh.

  3. I think they should put more billboards up. I have experience with Billboards and know how effective they are through my the company I work with BillBoard Connection (http://www.billboardconnection.com)


  4. Billboards are hideous, nauseating blots on the landscape and should be banned. They are distracting, a menace to driving, and our appallingly stupid Maryland legislature should have included them in their texting bill which so unfathomably didn't include receiving texts.

    Down with billboards! Up with trees!