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Toll or tax for better transportation?

By Robert Thomson
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:16 AM

Dear Dr. Gridlock:Under Dr. G's Tips [Commuter page, Jan. 2], you described the increase in tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. Hasn't it occurred to anyone that it is grossly inequitable to charge tolls on one commuter highway in the Washington area but not on any of the others?

Eventually, the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery and Prince George's counties will make it two highways. The only policy that could possibly be fair would be to charge tolls on all local highways or none. And why should the unfortunate commuters who use the Dulles Toll Road be required to fund a new Metro line? If that line is necessary, its cost should be shared by all taxpayers. For that reason, I suggest an increase in gasoline taxes as an alternative to tolls.

Anthony Mauger, Kensington

DG: Ever since Charon started charging for the ferry trip to Hades, we've hated tolls. In the early days of our republic, they became a method of financing the construction and operation of specific roadways. The more the nation expanded, the more travelers demanded better and bigger highways, bridges and tunnels. But finding a fair way to pay those mounting expenses was always a struggle.

Peter Samuel, who operates the Web site TOLLROADSnews, notes that one historic alternative to tolling was to require that able-bodied citizens turn out for a few days each year with picks and shovels to maintain roads. But any big road was going to be used by a lot of outsiders who had nothing to do with maintaining it. That didn't seem fair. At least Charon charged everyone for the ride.

Governments used tolls to create the bond financing for big projects. Often, tolls were removed when the debt was paid. But that's not necessarily so, and it creates another form of resentment among travelers. For example, a portion of the tolls that people in the New York area pay when they use bridges and tunnels helps finance the subway and other transit services. So, too, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates the Dulles Toll Road as well as Reagan National and Dulles International airports, is using a portion of the toll-road money to help finance construction of the Metrorail line to the Dulles area.

But at least the money is staying in the same general area. And construction of the rail line could divert some drivers to the trains or focus development so more people could live near their workplaces.

Alternative methods of paying for improvements exist. Tolls, however, are not the only way to finance indignation among travelers. For years, I've heard from Northern Virginia drivers who resent having their state tax money used to help finance highways in Southside that they'll never use. Similarly, Marylanders scrutinize which big transportation projects are launched in the Washington area vs. what's underway in the Baltimore area. Don't get them started on the California highways that they're helping to finance through federal taxes.

Is there any chance of creating a transportation financing system that most travelers would consider fair? The trend lately is toward using toll revenue to finance big new projects. We'll see that in the Washington region when Virginia's High Occupancy Toll lanes and Maryland's Intercounty Connector open.

I detect less resentment about those projects because only a portion of highway users will be paying extra to travel in new lanes. The people we call our leaders fear that if they increased gas taxes to finance improvements, then everybody would be angry at them because many people would be paying for roads and rails they'll never use.

Meanwhile, electronic technology has made it relatively easy for governments to create tolls and for drivers to pay them - at least until they get their credit card bills.

So should we expand tolling instead of taxing? Well, we're going to hit a ceiling on tolerance for new tolls. The tolls in the works now will pay for new lanes. The same technology would allow governments to toll existing lanes, financing maintenance and improvements. Or they could create congestion zones and charge drivers to enter crowded areas such as downtown Washington or Tysons Corner. Let me know if you've heard of a politician brave enough to support that.

Smart traveling

With the holidays over, we're wrapping up our annual discussions of long-distance routes. I shared with you many of the routing suggestions I've received from experienced travelers, including several dodges around the Interstate 95 toll plaza at Newark, Del. For northbound I-95 drivers, they included taking Route 279 toward Newark, turning right onto Iron Hill Road, left onto Chestnut Hill Road, right onto Route 896 (South College Avenue) and back to I-95. And there's this variation: Route 279 to Elkton Road, which becomes Route 2, then go north about two miles, right on Route 4 (Christiana Parkway) for about a mile, then right again on College Avenue, with I-95 ahead.

This follow-up report comes from a reader who saw our listing and put it to good use.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I took it all down, drew the maps and sent them to my daughter and her family members, who drove down to the District from New York on Christmas Eve.

They watched the traffic flow carefully and decided to go straight south and through the plaza. They had no delays. But they saw a miles-long holdup in the traffic going north. They paid attention and saw where the holdup ended. Then they made careful note of the exit before the holdup started. En route north on Dec. 30, they took that exit and your bypass and had no trouble at all. Of course they never knew what the situation at the plaza was that day, because they never saw it.

Yoma Ullman, the District

DG: First, this matches my experience and what I heard from other travelers. The congestion at the Newark Toll Plaza on I-95 in Delaware often seemed worse on the northbound side. Keep in mind that construction and congestion at the plaza will continue until late summer, when the new highway-speed E-ZPass lanes are scheduled to open. We'll provide updates, but you also can check the Delaware Department of Transportation's Web information at www.deldot.gov/information/travel_advisory , or tune to WTMC (1380 AM) in Delaware.

Ullman's daughter and family were smart to be aware of traffic conditions and go with the flow. I do hope people benefit by storing up the alternative routes we offer, but it's important to say alert for changing conditions on the day of your trip.

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