A 2 to 1 majority of Washington area residents prefer tolls to taxes as a way to fund road construction, a view in line with that of transportation officials who are planning a regional network of pay-as-you-go highways, according to new local and national polls by The Washington Post.
A majority of traffic-beleaguered residents also said they were willing to try new types of tolls to bypass congestion: 58 percent of respondents approved of the concept of allowing drivers with no passengers to pay a fee to use carpool lanes, compared with just 36 percent nationally.
However, local commuters were divided on whether to create adjustable-toll highways, while a majority polled nationally was opposed. The concept of allowing tolls to rise and fall according to traffic levels is critical to several projects in Maryland, including a planned east-west highway north of the Capital Beltway.
The results are significant for a region where all future large-scale road and rail projects rely on tolls.
"There are no major projects being talked about that aren't envisioning some type of tolling," said Virginia Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet.
The same is true across the nation. North Carolina, Colorado and Alaska have created tolling authorities in recent years. The first toll facility in Minnesota is to open next month.
Tolls have reappeared years after they were dismissed as a time-consuming, congestion-causing hassle, because technological advances now allow drivers to be charged while traveling at highway speeds. The resurgence of tolls has also been driven by an aversion to tax increases.
"A majority of states, if not 90 percent of them, are all taking a hard look at tolls," said Jack Finn, senior vice president of HNTB, a planning and construction firm. "I think primarily it's a funding issue, because the need for highways continues to grow, yet our funding for them has not."
Transportation experts said tolls are a hot idea in the region because drivers are sick of congestion.
That's the case for Ed Powell, who waits until after rush hour to drive from Fair Oaks to Alexandria. Occasionally, he has to go when everyone else does, and he said he'd be happy to pay for a sure thing.
"On those one or two days I really have to be there on time, [a high-occupancy toll lane] would make a tremendous difference," Powell said.
In Virginia, there are proposals to build HOT lanes, which allow lone drivers to pay to use carpool lanes, on the Beltway and on Interstates 95 and 395. The state also plans to fund 20 percent of a new $1.5 billion rail line between West Falls Church and Reston with a 25-cent increase at gates on the Dulles Toll Road. The Commonwealth Transportation Board plans to vote on the increase tomorrow.
In Maryland, officials are considering adding express toll lanes to the Beltway, I-270, the Baltimore Beltway and I-95 north of Baltimore. All drivers would pay a toll that would rise as congestion increases. Adjustable tolls would also be charged on a proposed intercounty connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Supporters argue that tolls are an equitable way for people to pay for roads -- if you drive it, you pay for it. Detractors question whether a system of toll roads would save money or draw enough users. They also worry that the system would price out the poor.