Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Getting anywhere will mean big bucks or semi-gridlock."


Toll lanes: A quick escape for the rich


John Merrifield
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Without entrepreneurial leadership, the political process can produce the worst possible outcome. The imminent construction of toll lanes next to existing "free" lanes is a likely case in point.

As such projects come online, rush-hour motorists will face a choice between clogged "free" lanes and expensive toll lanes — an escape hatch for the rich and the desperate. Think about it! Are you going to use the toll lanes before there is significant congestion in the "free" lanes?

Please, someone with an urge to lead, make this case to the people before getting anywhere means big bucks or semi-gridlock. For example, on Route 91 east of Los Angeles, it costs $9.25 to use the toll lanes during rush hours. Alongside, partly because of that high toll, traffic crawls along in the "free" lanes. It's well-documented, and I've been there.

So, that's where we're headed. If you have a standard workday, you'll get to choose between a bumper-to-bumper crawl or $20 a day for tolls.

The right approach is a much lower, rush-hour-only toll. Then everyone moves and spends much less on tolls. Failure to apply tolls to all rush hour drivers leaves us with the imminent escape hatches for the rich and the desperate as the only alternative to an expensive construction race against increased demand.

Example: Atlanta's Interstate 75 with 15 lanes going on 23. This isn't one wacky economist's thoughts about use of tolling to address congestion and revenue issues. This is an Economics 101 application found in mainstream urban economics textbooks.

A big part of the looming urban planning disaster is the common delusion that rush hour tolling of existing roads amounts to paying for the road twice. That's false. The toll revenues pay for maintenance and expansion.

But because the typical officeholder represents, rather than leads, most states (including Texas) have laws against the tolling of existing roads. Failure to correct popular misunderstanding, challenge such laws and work for an alternative law that permits the approaches suggested by mainstream economic analysis is going to be quite costly.

The proponents of separate toll lanes have begun to realize that the toll lanes will be empty most of the time. They are wondering how they can pay for the toll lanes with modest, rush-hour-only use, especially at the relatively low toll rates cited so far.

So there has been talk of lower speed limits on the "free" lanes. That's just the tip of the iceberg. They'll have to severely restrict or discourage free lane use and/or charge high tolls to the rich and the desperate to pay off the bonds for the new lanes.

John Merrifield is a professor of economics at UTSA.

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