HOT Topic

Will toll roads save our nation's capital?

Figures. As I creep along the Capital Beltway for what I hope will be the last time, taking 30 minutes to go two miles, the people responsible for the mess finally show signs of understanding how to fix Washington, D.C.'s horrid traffic. But it'll be three to five years before Beltway drivers see any improvement. Some of them will still be trying to merge.

Last week government traffic experts and road-planners finally put the idea of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes into the mix of possible solutions to one of the nation's worst roadway snarls. This is a huge step as HOT had been consistently knocked down as a solution worse than the problem. Critics said allowing motorists to buy their way into car pool lanes would create a "two-tier" system of driving, with those able to afford the tolls cruising along while others sat and sucked fumes.

Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D), who strove to show his hostility to the automobile and pump up his standing with the green lobby, explicitly forbid his traffic-choked state from even studying HOT lanes.

"If you're reasonably well off financially and want to pay $4 to $5 a day to avoid congestion, then you get to use these lanes. But if you're a working person out there making $35,000 a year, an extra $25 per week is a lot of money," Glendening declared in 2001 when he killed one HOT lane draft.

Well, let's consider the math. Based on a 40-hour week and 50 weeks in a year of work, the guv's $35K straw man makes about $17.50 an hour. That is what his time is worth to others, and presumably to him. For $25 a week in tolls, he could easily save himself an hour a day in commuting time by using HOT lanes. By Tuesday he's already made his investment back. Even if he only shaves off 15 minutes in-bound and out-bound each day, Mr. 35K still comes out ahead at the end of the week by paying the tolls.

Actual surveys of HOT users in California and Houston back up this hypothetical. No difference in income levels was found among HOT users. The common-denominator was that they all wanted to save time, the scarcest resource of all.

But focusing on who uses HOT misses exactly half of the story. Those who elect to stick to the non-HOT lanes still get some benefit. Every car that pays its way out of the prole lanes is one car no longer choking those lanes. The total number of cars competing for the same blacktop goes down.

Much of the current traffic planning mind-set assumes vehicle use must be punished. Any solution which gives driver's access to more road is automatically suspect as a result. This explains the hostility of Glendening and crew, but not that of the motorists' own Mid-Atlantic AAA. The AAA cries out for help battling gridlock in and around D.C., but HOT lanes are not included in the cure. The AAA has dismissed HOT lanes as "Lexus lanes" and seems to think that motorists have already paid enough for roads via fuels taxes.

This might be a reasonable view for the 1950s, but gas taxes have long ceased to function as anything like a user fee for driving. The complex political gamesmanship that determines exactly how much federal money, and hence state money, and hence local money, flows into a road project is not immediately available to the poor schmuck filling up at the pump, wondering where it all goes. The user has no immediate feedback on what he or she has paid for.

Besides, the 1993 federal tax hike package which included a 4-cent gas tax increase forever sundered the sanctity of the federal Highway Trust Fund. The funds from that tax increase were sent to off to Washington to help shrink the deficit, not to build roads.

Despite continued opposition from AAA and misguided local neighborhood groups who think sound traffic policy means forcing someone else out of their car, the looming traffic crisis has forced government officials to abandon their poses and look at what actually works. Wall-to-wall red ink also has forced some new thinking in government offices.

As Ronald Kirby, transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, told The Washington Post, "We have no other solutions on the horizon." And you can almost hear scales fall from the eyes of Virginia's deputy secretary of transportation, Pierce Homer, when he says, "This is a serious question being asked in a lot of regions around the country: Are there market-based solutions to congestion?"

With the arrival of Gov. Robert Erhlich (R), Maryland is free to look at HOT lanes for Interstate 270, which regularly locks down despite the presence of HOV lanes and various forms of subsidized mass-transit. However, the HOT lane study for Route 50 east of D.C. that was cancelled by Glendening still has not been replaced.

Big, institutional hurdles also remain. At bottom, the only thing that will fix D.C.'s traffic is more lanes across the Potomac River. AAA itself notes that many crossings planned in the 1960s and 70s were never built due to one form of political opposition or another.

Virginia is all for building another bridge just north and west of the current 495 crossing. But Maryland is steadfastly opposed, in part because more lanes would make it that much easier for Maryland residents to fly out of Dulles Airport in Virginia instead of Baltimore-Washington Airport. Passengers who avoid BWI would not pay Maryland's various fees and taxes to fly, a definite no-no as far as Maryland pols are concerned.

Such parochial concerns will not go away anytime soon. But neither will Beltway traffic.

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