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Tolling Points

Maryland, Virginia Team Up on Congestion-Busting Bridge Widening

By: 
Bill Cramer

In what a leading newspaper is calling “an unusual example of interstate cooperation,” two state governments and the private sector have pulled together on a congestion relief project to benefit highway users in one of the United States’ most heavily-travelled corridors.

To get it done, two state administrations, one Republican and one Democrat, had to cooperate across party lines, virtually in the shadow of the Capitol. And the project even includes an inadvertent shout-out to the nation’s veterans.

The long-awaited project is the $1-billion widening of the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River, on the northwestern stretch of the Capital Beltway between Montgomery and Fairfax Counties. What makes this public-private partnership (P3) most notable is that, while most of the bridge and the river flowing below it belong to Maryland, Virginia willingly put up its share of the funds to make the project happen, the Washington Post reports.

It’s also a fantastic, living example of what happens when three IBTTA members—Transurban, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), and the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA)—join forces to solve a tough problem for a community of weary commuters they all hold in common.

Everyone Serves the Same Customer

For the last several years, one way or another, IBTTA presidents’ themes have focused on the customer. And rightly so.

Tolling agencies know their job is to deliver a package of results, not a stretch of infrastructure. They know highway users don’t wake up thinking that this Tuesday might be a good day to try out a particular road. (Not unless their job is to operate or maintain that particular road.) A user’s daily journey to and from work, school, or other commitments might take them through different tolled facilities, across county or state lines, or through multiple transportation modes.

And none of that matters to them. Their concern, and the tolling industry’s laser focus, is about getting customers to their destination, safely and on time.

Delivering on that promise is precisely what tolling is about. But populations are rising. Urban and suburban transportation networks, in particular, are becoming more complex and crowded. So it’s getting tougher for any one agency or jurisdiction to deliver a complete, self-sufficient solution.

Managed lane providers have been putting a lot of thought into this dynamic as their individual projects begin morphing into integrated managed lane networks. Bridges are another frequent example of the need for wider collaboration, since a structure that crosses a waterway is often a connecting point between two jurisdictions.

So it’s hardly surprising that Maryland and Virginia saw the need to join forces on this project. But in today’s gridlock off the highway, it’s thrilling to see two state governments working with the private sector, come together to provide a solution for all their customers.

Making It Look Easy

The Washington Post coverage makes it clear that the win the two states are celebrating has been years in the making.

“The plan marks a breakthrough in a years-long impasse,” the paper writes. “In the past, Maryland has said it didn’t have enough money for the undertaking, and Virginia said the bridge was its neighbor’s responsibility.”

But gradually, the solution came together. Consumers needed it. Area businesses demanded it. And tolling helped make it happen, with four variable-priced lanes running alongside the eight general purpose lanes on the existing span.

Once the deal was done, both governors were happy to embrace a massive good news story in a surprise joint announcement.

“A new bridge means commuters will get to work and back home faster,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). “This is about helping people see their families more, grow their businesses, and further unlock the region’s vast economic potential.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called it a “once-in-a-generation achievement,” adding that a “bipartisan, common-sense interstate agreement such as this has eluded elected leaders throughout the region for many decades.”

And the next success may be around the corner. “In a related development, Maryland said it will speed up the process of picking a private sector operator to build new express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, stretching northeast from the bridge to the Interstate 95 interchange in Prince George’s County,” the Post writes.

“Montgomery County officials and traffic experts have voiced concerns that an already-approved plan to add lanes to Interstate 270 before widening the Beltway and the bridge would make traffic worse. They warned it would dump more vehicles from I-270 into the same smaller funnel on the Beltway and the bridge.”

So Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn displayed the same kind of integrated thinking that is sweeping the industry, announcing that private operators will be picked simultaneously for the I-270 and Beltway projects.

“I-270 does not work without the American Legion Bridge,” Rahn said. “The American Legion Bridge does not work without [Interstate] 495 over to 95. We have to be approaching this as a system.”

Get your system thinking in place! Mark your calendar for IBTTA’s 2020 conference and workshop series.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, November 19, 2019 - 08:30

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