Monday, June 11, 2007

"[Bush] doesn't mind turning over the problem to entrepreneurs-who don't have to be re-elected- whether that be U.S. investors or a foreign company."

All tolled, pay roads the future


By Al Lewis
The Denver Post
Copyright 2007

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters loves tolls, except when she's riding her Harley.

She and her husband recently went rumbling down The Dulles Greenway, a 14-mile toll road that connects Washington Dulles International Airport with Leesburg, Va. The Greenway, completed in 1995, may be right near our nation's capital, but it's operated by Autostrade, an Italian company.

Autostrade now wants to raise its maximum tolls from $2.70 to $4.80 by 2012.

I guess they don't call it the greenway for nothing.

"We had to stop and fish money out of our jeans to pay the toll," said Peters, 58. "And I went, 'What? This is a pretty high toll.' Even I, who believes in toll roads, was a little grumpy about it."

I interviewed Peters at Denver International Airport on Wednesday. I was feeling grumpy too. It cost $8 in roundtrip tolls on E-470 to get to DIA. Then when I got there, signs warned that the parking lots were filled. Even the pricey valet parking lots were fully loaded.

I promised myself I would not take out my transportation frustrations on the transportation secretary. The Arizona native was only named to her post in September. And I was told she had come to Colorado with a solution.

The solution: More tolling lanes.

Peters announced that Denver is one of nine finalist cities for a $1.1 billion Transportation Department program aimed at curbing congestion. Up to five of these cities may be chosen for the program, and if Denver is one of them, the agency will help the state fund high-occupancy tolling lanes along U.S. 36 up to Boulder.

Peters made the announcement beside Gov. Bill Ritter at a Safeway warehouse off Interstate 70, where snarled traffic leads to higher grocery prices. "When those trucks get stuck in traffic, ... your lettuce, your bread, whatever you are buying, is going to cost you more," Peters said.

Denver's rush-hour travelers spend 51 hours a year stuck in traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. That congestion costs the Denver-area economy $200 billion a year, including 3.7 billion hours of wasted time and 2.3 billion gallons of fuel.

People spend less time with their families, and less time getting involved in their communities, simply because they are stuck in traffic, Peters said. The federal government as well as the states are not taking in enough money from gasoline taxes to expand roads.

Part of the reason is that the federal tax on gasoline has not budged from 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. When the Democrats raised it back then, they set the stage for the Republicans to take back Congress in 1994. Since then, no politician has dared to hike gasoline prices.

"The president doesn't like the 'tax' word, at all," Peters said.

So instead of raising gasoline taxes, the president raises tolls. He also supports letting somebody else raise local sales taxes for roads. And he doesn't mind turning over the problem to entrepreneurs - who don't have to be re-elected - whether that be U.S. investors or a foreign company such as Autostrade.

In Colorado, residents complain that private toll roads, E-470 and the Northwest Parkway, are so expensive that drivers avoid them, causing more congestion on local roads. These tollways have only raised their tolls in response. And more toll hikes seem inevitable. The Northwest Parkway may soon be leased to foreign investors for up to 50 years to avert bankruptcy.

Peters, however, sees the future as variably priced tolling lanes, with more expensive tolls during peak periods and lower tolls as traffic gets thinner. Commuters would have the option of staying in the congested lanes for free, or getting in the HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes for a fee. Vehicles with more than one passenger could still ride in the HOT lanes free.

Someday, drivers will be tolled or taxed based on the miles they travel and the roads they drive, Peters predicts. This will be done with satellite-positioning systems. A system like this is perhaps 20 years away. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to get a tollway transponder.

People don't seem to notice how much they are paying to a foreign tollway operator when they use a transponder. And for those traveling to high-paying jobs, it's worth paying a premium for unclogged lanes.

When Peters first moved to Washington, she lived along a commuter route that could take 20 minutes or perhaps 2½ hours.

"I didn't get to choose," she said. "If I could have paid a toll and known that I could get (to work) every day in 30 minutes, I would have done that. Time is valuable to me. ... What you get when you pay for a toll is a guaranteed ride time."

And our politicians who avoid raising gasoline taxes get a guaranteed ride time too.

Al Lewis' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Respond to Lewis at, or 303-954-1967.
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© 2007 The Denver Post:

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