Maryland's I-95 Express Lanes not promising - high cost, slow work, low traffic OPTIONS ADDED

March 19, 2013

2013-03-18: Since Cofiroute, the French toller pioneered toll express lanes on the 91 Freeway nearly 20 years in the northeast corner of Orange County California such HOT or toll managed lanes have achieved a great record of success. But even the best ideas can be misapplied or poorly implemented.

There's a disappointment very close here in Maryland - the I-95 Express Lanes (MD95ETLs) in the southern portion of the JFK Highway. These lead from the convergence of the northern approaches to the two Baltimore Harbor tunnels (Fort McHenry Tunnel I-95 and Baltimore Harbor Tunnel I-895) up through the Baltimore Beltway I-695 and the MD43 interchange at White Marsh, a total of 8 miles.

A second section would extend this 14 miles and four interchanges further to serve the bedroom communities of Harford County.

Studies go back a decade

The project was planned ten and more years ago for traffic growth that hasn't occurred. 

Planning for the first stage was part of an I-95 Master Plan study published April 2003 which, using Baltimore metro planning models, forecast compound annual growth in traffic of 2.6%/year though a 2020 planning date from base traffic numbers in 2000.

Even before the first portion of the planned express toll lanes (MD95ETLs) has opened we are 12 years into the planning period 2000-2020.

Multiplying the Master Plan (MP) increases in traffic for 2020 by 12/20 we get comparisons of planned and actual numbers. For the first section in which the first ETLs are under construction AADT in each segment is 158,000 in 2012 vs 154,000 in 2000.

The Master Plan projected 196,000. The actual increase is barely 10% of the forecast increase (4,000 vs 41,000.)

The second stretch MD43 to beyond MD22 (in which the second part of the ETL is proposed) shows a 22% increase in traffic (24,000) versus a 43,000 or 40% projected increase. Not as bad a shortfall but still serious.

Growth in commuter traffic about half forecast

Traffic has actually grown at a somewhat faster rate beyond the Baltimore commuting range northeast of MD22, and beyond the planned ETL. Sections 3 and 4 as they are called saw a 31% increase in traffic in 12 years. But that's also well below the 54% increase in the MdTA traffic forecast.

Part of the problem is that the authors of the Master Plan used some inflated numbers for base 2000 traffic.

But the bigger error - which others have made too - was in seeing a basic continuation this century in the growth of driving at close to the 3% annually of the 1990s.

Jacobs says is "new normal" of growth - very little

Just recently Jacobs traffic and revenue report for all MdTA's toll facilities (2011 Traffic and Toll Revenue Report, revised Feb 2012) argues that the depressed traffic trend represents much more than the great recession and the 2008 housing/financial crisis.

Traffic trends were more subdued from 2002 onward, the new report says, well before the crisis hit.

Growth of traffic 2002 to 2007 was 0.7%/year versus 2.6% 1995 to 2002. Jacobs say this low growth was unprecedented through a boom period.

Changes in the workforce and an aging population plus telecommuting and trip chaining are mentioned as factors behind the "new normal" of very slow growth in aggregate traffic and slight decline in per capita vehicles miles traveled.

Jacobs think that with a recovery from the recession and no new financial crisis traffic could grow at about 1%, an improvement on the 0.7% of the 2000s but way below the 3% of the 90s. With scheduled toll increases they think traffic on MdTA facilities will decline slightly through 2014 and then grow at about 1% without further toll increases.

Jacobs were not asked to project traffic and revenue on the MD95ETLs (or the ICC.) Their forecasts are strictly for the established MdTA toll facilities with their present tolling configurations.

So all we have for the potential of the ET:s is that old 2003 Master Plan study, which is now seen as an absurd basis for planning.

A nice if expensive, overbuilt faciliity

The first 8 mile ETL section will be nice to have for traffic between the Harbor tunnels and Harford County and points north.

It will provide a way of bypassing the merges and diverges of huge four level interchange of I-95 and I-695 that is nearing completion.

Unfortunately the big four level IC doesn't provide for any Baltimore Beltway connections to the ETLs, detracting from their potential traffic.

Completion of the 22 mile ETL project with the 14 mile extension beyond White Marsh is now seriously in doubt. Once touted as a project for 2011 to 2015 an MdTA official said recently nothing is going to happen to advance section 2 in the immediate future. He spoke to a Baltimore Sun reporter of there "being no money" for it - a clear admission it would never be self-financing.

Huge cost escalation

The MD95ETLs lanes have become horrendously expensive.

Back in 2003 when the planning was put under way the MdTA's Master Plan study said costs were about $750m for the first section and $600 for the second, a total for the 22 miles of about $1,350m.

At the groundbreaking in January 2006 MdTA said the cost would be $830m and that the first section ETL would open in 2011.

(News Release Jan 31, 2006

A five year construction project is lingering on into eight years, and the costs are about doubling.

(Inflation? No, actually the the construction cost index shows average contract costs have declined since the boom years some 7%.)

The latest estimate for finishing the first section of 8 miles alone is now $1,500m, and cost of the second section is put at $1.92b.

[ADDITION: The state assembly's Department of Legislative Services said in a recent audit of MdTA that the cost of the first segment could be as much as $1,500m. At that point MdTA hadn't themselves published any new estimate. We were told by them today (3-21) that their current estimated cost for planning, engineering, right of way and construction for the first stage  is $1,077 million. We have more questions about the discrepancy and will report that separately. Also MdTA tells us that the deferred second part of the project can only be roughly estimated at this point, but that "would be in the $2 billion range." Mar 21 22:15]

At $3.42b total that's half as much again as the VA/495 Express Lanes, a far more complicated project. The 495 Express Lanes are in a corridor of much more vigorous development than MD/I-95/JFK and with 50% more daily traffic already.

Not in first 30 in MD in congestion

The JFK/I-95 corridor now doesn't even show up in the list of the thirty most congested highway segments in the state.

MdTA officials have been saying quite reasonably that there are higher priority projects in the state than the second section of the MD95 toll express lanes. These include the Capital Beltway on the west and north sides, I-270 northwest of DC and extensions of the ICC counterclockwise over the Potomac to link with VA28.

Harford County which lays astride the central portion of the JFK is a pretty area due its many inlets from the upper Chesapeake Bay and there is an increase in population there. But the increase is largely older workers and retirees who drive less.

The population of under-40 has not increased.

Where now?

MD/I-95JFK remains a very important corridor of genuine interstate importance as well as of regional significance. However the Master Plan Study of 2003 needs to be revisited in light of the much slower traffic growth that has occurred and is now being forecast.

There's still a congestion problem to deal with north of the end of the express toll lanes beyond MD43. But the problem is less urgent and less severe than the planning documents claim.


(1) More basic ETLs

the current design with four separate roadways and shoulders each side of each roadway and three lines of separations with concrete barriers is the de luxe design for managed lanes.

They could well be scaled back to a pair of five or six lane roadways with two ETLs each direction divided off from three or four general purpose lanes by plastic delineator pylons of the kind used on the Capital Beltway.

This would reduce the pavement required by 40 to 50ft (20 to 25ft each direction.) And it would reduce the span of overbridges and the width of mainline bridges.

230ft of roadway would be reduced to about 190ft, by 17%.

Maybe the northern most segment can be reduced to a single ETL lane each direction, and again as part of the general roadway and with plastic pylons rather than concrete barrier.

(2) Toll all lanes from MD43 at end of stage 1 ETL up the Delaware border

The whole highway could be tolled north of MD43 in White Marsh.

It was originally tolled with mainline toll collection both directions and tolls at ramps for shorter trips. Political pandering saw tolls taken off the ramps in the 1970s and then the tolls reduced to one direction on the mainline.

It has always been financed with tolls and is still maintained by tolls collected at the Perryville toll point to the north.

With all-electronic toll technology it could be rationally tolled to spread the costs over all users more evenly.

This doesn't require any federal permission since federal monies have never been used here.

And it would finance the reconstruction and modernization needed along the whole corridor.

"The money" is there in the value of this facility.

P3'd off

Maryland legislators' suggestion that the ETL portion can be P3'd off to fund indulgences like trolley lines in Montgomery County are a fantasy (as well as lousy policy.) 

The ETLs will be nice to have but with congestion so moderate they won't make enough money to support bids anywhere near what has been spent on them.

A P3 incorporating the ETLs to MD43 would make sense if it were part of a larger scheme for tolling and modernizing the rest of the highway to the Delaware border.

TOLLROADSnews 2013-03-18 ADDITION Mar 19th 23:00

Further Reading

Leave a comment:

Upcoming Events