1,650 lane-mile self-financing $52b toll lane network for Washington DC area, 12.5% less congestion

September 16, 2010
By Peter Samuel

A report by Washington DC metro area planners says adding toll lanes to the expressway network, converting HOV lanes and pricing some other lanes would generate nearly sufficient toll revenues to pay for the cost, improve travel times and achieve major reductions in congestion. The report is just a planners study, not a plan, although the very positive result of the study - along with the fact that the area's two largest highway improvements presently under construction, the Beltway in northern Virginia and the Inter County Connector in Maryland are both toll financed and variably priced tolls - should build political support for tolled expressways in the national capital area.

The planners study assumes two toll lanes each direction on most existing expressways including interstates, parkways, and state routes and single toll lanes on some arterials. It would be a network of some 1,650 lane miles (2580 lane-km) of priced lanes, composed of:

- 800 lane-miles (1,300 lane-km) of newly constructed toll lanes [including the 150 lane-miles (240 lane-km) under construction)

- 350 lane miles (480 lane-km) of HOV lanes converted to toll lanes

- 500 lane miles (800 lane-km) converted to toll lanes from general purpose lanes

The toll lane network would support some 500 route-miles (800km) of bus rapid transit (BRT) with some 138 BRT stations that would provide the major new transit capacity in the region. Rail is too expensive and slow, apparently. The rapid bus network would cater to longer distance trips than metro-rail, circumferential trips as well as connections to rail. It would have metro-like stations with floor level platforms, platform payment, double sets of doors and so forth to reduce stop times. Stations would be further apart than on the slow metro-rail system.

Estimated cost of constructing the 1,650 lane-mile (2,580 lane-km) priced lane network is put at $52 billion but the report says it would come very close to paying for itself with some $2.5 billion/year of toll revenues. The concept would adds 2x2 toll lanes on most area expressways, 2x1 toll lanes on major arterials, converts HOV lanes to toll lanes and provides direct access/egress (direct connector ramps) at all key interchanges.

Average travel speeds up 6.1%

"Overall average speeds across the region increase significantly by 6.1% and vehicle hours of delay decrease dramatically by 12.5%, signaling significant decreases in congestion," is the report's conclusion based on some years of analysis and modeling of the network.

Later: "The scenario is remarkably effective at reducing congestion, which is the one of two major benefits of creating a regional priced lane network. The second of these two is the ability to raise needed revenue for services to maintain equitable mobility and accessibility if lanes are to be priced."

The project called a Scenario Study is titled CLRP Aspirations Scenario, the CLRP standing for Constrained Long Range Plan - constrained by financing and by the difficulty (some would say impossibility) of building the highway capacity to meet demand for uncongested travel, toll-free.

The CLRP involves a significant effort to use land use planning to concentrate development at transit-served centers and to better balance jobs and homes. The modeling shows this helps improve transit use but it does very little or nothing to reduce road congestion.

"Average speeds across the region stay relatively the same in the land use sensitivity compared to the baseline. Vehicle hours of delay increase slightly by 1.0%."

Downside of the tolled network is said to be an encouragement to higher vehicles-miles traveled, more dispersed development and higher levels of pollution and of CO2 emissions.

On this the report states: "It is unlikely that a large-scale regional plan can be created to have only positive impacts and no unintended negative consequences. The CLRP Aspirations scenario produces some results that counter the goals set forth in the (planning board)Vision, such as improving environmental quality and producing shorter trips that result in a reduction of VMT. For example, reducing congestion increases auto accessibility in many parts of the region causing driving and trip lengths to increase, allowing for faster and longer trips and higher VMT."

The concept adds little to the area metrorail system but plans to exploit the free flowing toll lanes network as the backbone for bus rapid transit (BRT):

"Pairing the priced (toll) lanes with BRT service provides the potential for great synergy: variably priced toll lanes provide free-flowing running-way for bus rapid transit vehicles and toll revenue offsets the cost of BRT facilities and service. BRT services reduce the demand for the priced lanes, allowing them to operate more smoothly and preventing congestion. Both the BRT and priced lanes should provide mode-shift incentives, providing congestion relief to the existing general purpose lanes."

Toll rates 20c to $2.00/mile

Toll lanes would be managed with dynamic pricing, and it is estimated they would vary between 20c/mile (12c/km) and $2/mile ($1.20/km). The modeling assumed that single and two occupant vehicles would pay tolls, while HOV3 and greater including buses would be exempt from the tolls. Cost recovery from tolls is put at 96% of the $52b cost.

The traffic modeling made no allowance for the costs or benefits of improvements that might be made to roads connecting with the toll-enhanced expressway network. These would become more congested as a result of the plan.

And the modeling overlooks the financial benefits of selectiveness about which network segments are built. Although the full network has benefits of providing continuity, under a prioritizing approach toll lanes with the greatest payback would be built first, and low yielding segments deferred or eliminated from the plan.

The scenario assumed a fully isolated toll lanes network with all-direct connector interchanges (dedicated ramps), costing each an average $132m. Slip lanes between the toll lanes and the 'free' lanes and weaving across the general purpose lanes would greatly reduce costs. The report says such slip lanes in place of dedicated ramps might be feasible at some 96 interchanges. That alone would bring the capital cost down from $52b to about $40b.

The Scenario studied reflected the preferences of politicians and planners in the different jurisdictions, rather than being the most viable solution. In the District of Columbia for example officials said they wanted no new lanes and no extra highway capacity, and asked for the scenario to only toll existing general purpose lanes. So did the National Park Service which has control over the many parkways in the DC metro area. In Maryland and Virginia by contrast officials shy away from tolls on general purpose 'free' lanes and only want tolls on new capacity - on lane additions.

Faced with actual project plans they might be more discriminating.

The report concludes: "The results of this study do not form a simple story with an entirely positive outcome, but rather are nuanced and reflect the difficulty in meeting multiple, sometimes competing objectives. The scenario results in drastic reduction in congestion. It also increases transit, bicycle, and pedestrian use, as well as driving and air pollution at the same time. No plan can ever please everyone and as such there must be a method of balancing the costs and benefits to determine whether it is worth doing."

A 'what-if study'

Contrary to some hyped-up local reports this is not "a plan" that is currently proposed for implementation but an exploration of the possible result of land use and road pricing strategies.

Chris Zimmerman chairman  of the planning board pricing group is quoted: "This is not a proposal, it's a 'what if' study that provides very interesting insight into the implications of tolling for our region."

Apart from the two multi-billion dollar toll projects under way in the DC metro area there are no fewer than nine detailed corridor studies that have tolls or road pricing as components (see map nearby.)

COMMENT: Odd coming out of the Washington DC area, but this is the most fiscally responsible and realistic metro area transport plan concept from anywhere in the US - a backbone network of 2x2 land toll expressways, self-sufficient financially with road use charges and priced variably to prevent inefficient overload maintaining free flow. Also excellent is the emphasis on bus rapid transit that uses the managed lane network as its roadbed.  

That combination is a mighty powerful concept, that's implementable since it pays its own way and should attract people across the political spectrum for what it can do for both private vehicles, freight, and transit. The Planning Board and Metro Washington Council of Governments deserve congratulations.

But here are some critical comments also. Washington DC (WDC) metro area mobility would benefit from a less blinkered approach than reflected in the study in which only lane additions to existing highways are considered and no new routes are envisaged. A more effective WDC highway network might involve for example: (1) connection of VA28 to MD/ICC with a new Potomac River Bridge near Leesburg VA (2) connection between the MD/ICC at I-95 to MD/US301 at US50/I-595 in Bowie MD.

That would provide for more direct trips and alternatives to the Beltway, including redundancy in case of major accident or terrorist disruptions. It would conform to the 'outer beltway' concept as shown in the planning logo at top left.

Also needed is consideration of (3) some kind high grade connection of downtown DC to the Beltway in the northeast, perhaps along New Hampshire (MD650) or along US-1 (4) upgrade of the Fairfax County Parkway VA7100 from Dulles Toll Road to I-95/US1 to expressway standard with grade separations (5) upgrade of VA/US-15 and a new bridge at Point of Rocks (6) completion of Sykesville Rd, MD32 to expressway standard at I-70 (7) a new north-south bypass of Frederick...

We're getting parochial now, but there are many corridor upgrades, bypasses, and some new highway segments that need to be considered as well as just lane-additions of the Aspirations report. These should be fully tolled expressways, some of them tight 2+2 lanes, others more generously dimensioned.

Also: must local people be held hostage to the parkland-oriented policies of the National Park Service? Don't they have any say over how the parkways are developed? Their capacity should be enhanced in some cases along with pricing them.

Also the traffic and revenue assumptions behind $2.5b/year toll revenues need revision. Jobs in the Washington DC metro are assumed to grow from 3.1m (2005 base year) to 4.6m by 2040, nearly 50% higher. Like so many current planners documents this one talks airily about the embrace of notions of "sustainability" as conceived by environmentalists but doesn't seem to consider whether the nation's voters and taxpayers consider an ever-expanding national capital politically sustainable. The planning doesn't seem to allow for any Tea Party impact on rate of growth of the US Government! (see cartoon nearby)

But we think a scaled down, prioritized and selective version of the scheme plus consideration of new links like (1) through (5) is very workable. Next steps should be to review the planning assumptions, allowing for a leaner US government, and  traffic and revenue studies of several different sized and shaped toll lane networks including some completely new toll links - editor.

Link to documents:

http://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/ZV5YWVhb20100909154020.pdf

TOLLROADSnews 2010-09-15


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