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.

It also defeats some goals of building the roads. The ICC, for instance, was sold to the public in part as a way to make it easier for working people in Prince George's to get to jobs in Montgomery, but many won't be able to afford it.

"It was supposed to help this part of the county, but not at that price. I don't see a whole lot of usage at those rates," said Carol Howard, 41, of Beltsville, in northwestern Prince George's.

"My guess is they're setting the tolls where they have to, to pay for it. That's making it the 'Lexus lanes' that everybody was talking about," Roy Peck, a retired engineer from Rockville, said at a public meeting on the ICC in Silver Spring on Wednesday.

The new tolls on individual roads would seem in retrospect to be a minor irritant if motorists have to start paying for every trip to the supermarket. The revolutionary "vehicle miles traveled" pricing system would use GPS, cellphone towers or other mechanisms to bill drivers. The rates could vary according to location, hour and size of vehicle.

Such a plan could easily trigger a popular revolt, given that taxpayers already pay for the roads through gasoline levies and, in some cases, other taxes. However, many transportation experts are coming to believe that the system would be the most direct, logical way to charge for road use.

"The most viable approach . . . in the medium to long run will be a user-charge system based more directly on miles driven," the National Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, set up by Congress to look at the issue, reported.

The regional transportation board voted Wednesday to pursue a study of how to persuade the public to accept such a plan. The study would look at privacy concerns, how to get the region's various jurisdictions to cooperate and how the public would want the money to be shared within the area and between roads and mass transit.

So think of the new tolls as a first step. A few years from now, you might be paying a monthly bill for road use, similar to the ones you pay for electricity, telephone service and cable television.

E-mail me at mccartneyr@washpost.com.

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