Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Someone needs to take away Maryland’s crystal ball


To my knowledge, it’s still impossible to predict the future with any certainty. I mean, very few people have crystal balls, at least ones that work.

So when it comes to predicting traffic patterns and toll revenue, let’s just say it’s a far-from-perfect science. Consultants can study other roadways, current traffic counts, and maybe pick out some trends to watch. But even then, what they come up with is merely a projection.

Let’s take a look at the goings-on in Maryland, where truckers are still reeling from a series of sharp toll increases that began in 2009 on I-95 and at other facilities run by the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The $30 toll on I-95 north of Baltimore is now $48, while the $15 toll on the Preston (Bay) Bridge and the Nice Memorial Bridge on U.S. 301 also jumped to $48. Truckers fought hard against those increases, but they happened.

Now, the transportation authority – the same one that increased those tolls despite an onslaught of public outcry – is getting ready to open a new toll project, eight miles of managed toll lanes called the I-95 Express Toll Lanes, from the I-895 interchange to the north side of Maryland Route 43 in White Marsh.

Using its crystal ball, the authority projects the express lanes will save vehicles time and money by moving things along a little faster during periods of congestion. But how reliable are their projections?

A recent article by greatergreaterwashington.org points out that the $1.1 billion expansion project will collect a paltry $10 million a year in tolls – hardly enough to even make the debt payments. So why is such a top-heavy project happening?

You have to go back to 2003, when the I-95 Express Toll Lanes were proposed. That’s when the consultants came along and sold Maryland on the idea that I-95 would be unable to handle a projected 238,000 vehicles a day by the year 2020.

News for Maryland: The consultants no longer predict 238,000 vehicles per day on the interstate. In fact, that number was recently revised to 186,000 vehicles per day – a difference of 52,000 vehicles, or 22 percent. And the new lanes aren’t even built yet.

Nobody was counting on or predicting a recession, but that’s just what happened a few years ago, and it knocked a lot of traffic off the roads. These new lanes may have created some jobs, but that’s all we can really say about them. Like a lot of others who bet the farm on a toll road, this one is set up to be a failure.

And as for the overall toll picture in Maryland, I am predicting their premium prices are going to continue to drive traffic off the roads. But I could be wrong. I don’t have a crystal ball.