Radical alternative makes toll lanes look like a bargain

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, October 25, 2009

The biggest change for Washington area drivers in coming years can be summed up in a single word.


Tolls on new roads. Higher tolls on existing roads. Tolls on new lanes. Higher tolls in rush hour. Local governments even plan to study a radical proposal to charge a toll every time you drive your car, even on a quick trip to the grocery store using side streets. (A GPS or other device would be used to calculate your bill.)

Why is this happening? Mostly because we need new roads and politicians are scared to raise the gasoline tax to pay for them. It's pretty much that simple.

It's also unfortunate, because increasing the gasoline tax is a smarter alternative. It would be more efficient, because the collection apparatus is in place and there'd be no need to pay for new E-ZPass equipment, tollbooths or machines to photograph license plates. It would spread the burden more equitably and avoid putting some roads and express lanes off-limits to the less-affluent.

But tolls are an acceptable alternative, given that our political class lacks the vision and leadership needed to persuade the public to accept a tax increase. Moreover, some kind of large-scale tolling might be unavoidable in the long run, because the gasoline tax will gradually generate less revenue as people switch to hybrids and electric cars.

Meanwhile, motorists will pay tolls to use both of the two biggest new roadways under construction in the Washington area. They are the Intercounty Connector between Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes on part of the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

Tolls would be charged as well on HOT lanes planned on interstates 395 and 95 in Northern Virginia. The front-runner to become Virginia's next governor is proposing to add tolls as part of his transportation plan.

This is all a significant departure for the region, where the only highways that charge tolls are the Dulles Toll Road and its extension, the Dulles Greenway. In a sign of the times, the Dulles Toll Road is preparing to significantly raise its rates by 2012, despite strong opposition at recent public hearings.

Of the Washington area's total transportation costs, tolls and private sources are expected to account for 7 percent over the next two decades, up dramatically from 1 percent in 2003, according to an analysis by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. That represents a jump of $400 million a year.

The tolls are high, too. The rates proposed last month for the ICC would be among the costliest in the nation. They'd be up to 35 cents a mile at rush hour, or more than $11 round trip for the many drivers expected to use it to commute between the I-95 and I-270 corridors.

The high rates mean we're building a two-tier road system, in which more-prosperous people will enjoy quicker travel times and less frustration. Although hardly surprising in a class-based society, that's disturbing as a matter of public ethics.

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