In California, they are called “Lexus Lanes.”
According to Peter Funt, a television writer and host, crews are switching High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on Interstate 680 from Sacramento to San Jose into express lanes that use “dynamic pricing” to speed along motorists who can afford the extra charges.
And that, Funt writes in the New York Times, is inherently wrong. “It is a textbook case of government turning a good thing into an unfair thing.”
As he notes, one need look no farther than interstates 95, 395 and 495 in Northern Virginia for another example of this official price discrimination.
If you are commuting to a job that pays slightly more than minimum wage, there is no way you can afford to breeze by each day, back and forth, on the 40 miles or so of express lanes when the toll can range from 20 cents to $1 a mile in spots, depending on traffic density. If you try to run the lanes with no E-Z Pass, you can face thousands of dollars in penalties.
If you have a nice six-figure job and drive a Lexus or something even better, it may not matter as much.
Funt is absolutely right about this. There’s nothing wrong with toll roads. Everybody may shell out $7 or whatever to cross a bridge.
But this is the government allowing private companies to set up express lanes to shave some drive time and hassle for the rich.
Part of the logic in Virginia for the express lanes goes back to the state’s stubborn fear of raising taxes. So, the state and General Assembly set up various ruses to avoid having to pay for transportation construction. That’s how we end up with privatized toll roads and express lanes.
There is a simple solution. Raise gasoline taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, in 2017 Virginia’s per-gallon state gasoline tax was the lowest in the Mid-Atlantic region. The Old Dominion charges 22.39 cents per gallon, compared to 33.50 cents in Maryland, 34.55 cents in North Carolina. 23.50 cents in the District and 58.20 cents per gallon in Pennsylvania, the highest in the nation.
Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads face an extra, regional tax levy on gasoline sales for transportation projects.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Wagner, a state senator from Virginia Beach, has an interesting idea to address transportation funding.
He would ditch the current method of setting gas prices by sales in the wholesale gasoline market and go to a sliding scale set at the distributor level. This would raise more money and also cover revenue shortfalls from lower crude oil prices that won’t likely raise much in the future.
In Virginia, it is unusual, if not stunning, for a Republican to even broach raising taxes. Wagner is taking a lot of hits for it. But his kind of thinking is necessary and the obvious inequities of the preferential pricing in express lane tolling shows underline them.