Thursday, 10 February 2011

Maryland's new toll road a step forward in two ways

The Maryland Intercounty Connector is a new 7.2 mile toll road opening on 22 February between Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring according to the Washington Post.

The new road is the first stage in what will be called Route 200, which will be an 18.8 mile 6-lane highway which will ultimately connect Interstate 270 with Interstate 95 at Laurel. Yet it is still half the length of the original project conceived for this corridor.   Travel time along the corridor will be 70% reduced compared to using existing roads.

One significant step forward will be the use of all electronic free flow tolling. Technology well established over a decade ago in Toronto, Canada (Route 407) and Melbourne, Australia (Citylink) and used in multiple toll roads across the world.  This will avoid congestion at toll booths and will mean drivers paying either using an on board tag with an account (EZ Pass) or billed according to their number plates. The latter will include a US$3 service fee, incentivising users to establish EZ Pass accounts.

More important from an economics point of view is that tolls will vary according to demand. There will be three tolling periods:

Peak 0600-0900, 1600-1900 (weekdays only)
Offpeak 0500-0600, 0900-1600, 1900-2300, (0500-2300 weekends)
Overnight 2300-0500 (all days)

Charges vary considerably according to the schedule by time of day, with peak times having a 26% surcharge over off peak, and overnight being a nearly 48% discount on offpeak for cars. Similar variations exist for heavier vehicles.  The full toll schedule is here.

However, the intention is to change pricing periods dynamically. This means any charging period could start or finish up to one hour earlier or later depending on demand, with that variation happening with 10 days notice. So it wont be real time dynamic changes, but rather monitored changes in performance.   It has parallels to Singapore's Electronic Road Pricing system which regularly changes prices to maintain free flow conditions.

The difference that makes should be dramatic. Though it will be interesting to see if at times of low demand, peak periods shrink significantly, and overnight periods also increases to respond. Conversely, some motorists will not be happy if they choose to drive at off peak periods near the peak and find within a month or two they are paying the peak price because of congestion at those times.

Of course without increases in prices, there may still be congestion if the peak charge remains too low to manage demand.

Yet this is a really important display of applying market oriented pricing signals to the supply of road capacity. It both helps to manage congestion, but also should mean motorists notice the discounts they get from travelling at different times.  So overall, a valuable piece of new infrastructure, with modern tolling technology and the application of efficient pricing principles to help manage congestion.

May it be an example to future projects in the US.

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