Let special toll lanes whisk us out of gridlock

January 04, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

THE ADMINISTRATION of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is seriously exploring the idea of special toll lanes on the Washington and Baltimore beltways that could let Cadillacs and BMWs speed toward dinner at Morton's while the rest of us rot in gridlock.

I say: Bring it on.

"Congestion pricing," economists call it - paying extra to drive on high-demand routes at high-demand times.

It's used in Singapore, London, Houston and Southern California. It may be the future of urban commuting. It certainly is worth a try in this neighborhood, one of the world's traffic-clot showpieces.

Any desirable resource offered to users for free or drastically below cost will eventually be depleted to the point of crisis. That's what's happening to road space in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

For the sake of Maryland's sanity and economic development, it's time to address highway hysteria with the time-tested solution for resource scarcity: using prices to regulate demand and finance new supply.

You hate beltway congestion? You want the government to build more lanes? Great. Pay for them. Pay each time you use them and let those who live close to work or want to risk stop-and-go in the free lanes live their own lives and escape the toll.

"The governor is very interested. Very interested" in new, tolled lanes on the beltways or other arteries, says Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "We are actively working on developing that option."

Ehrlich isn't so interested that he'll propose anything soon. The State Highway Administration is conducting a study, and construction of any tolled lanes probably wouldn't begin until after the governor's first term, Flanagan said. Other Ehrlich highway initiatives - including the proposed Intercounty Connector - are advancing independently.

Tolled lanes are also called HOT lanes - for high-occupancy toll - by those who would let car-poolers use them gratis. To detractors worried about class implications - including former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who canceled a HOT lane study - they're "Lexus lanes."

Ehrlich's people are considering tolled lanes on the Washington and Baltimore beltways and other roads. Flanagan stresses that no tolls would be levied without expanding capacity. You got eight free beltway lanes now? You'd still have them with Ehrlich's HOT lanes.

The lanes would have no tollbooths. A radio transponder would deduct the fee from your account, eliminating collection backups. You'd pay by the mile. Privacy advocates favor the Singapore system, in which payments are anonymous.

Like all decentralized, market-based systems, properly designed congestion pricing adjusts itself and creates its own logic.

Rush-hour costlier

In Singapore, prices are high at rush hour and low at midnight. That discourages people from driving when backups are worst or prompts them to take other routes, use alternative transport or move closer to work. If problems persist, Singapore raises rush-hour prices even higher.

"Those who contribute more to the congestion pay more," says Singapore's Land Transport Authority Web site. "Those who use the roads less frequently or who travel during non-[rush] hours will pay less."

Beautiful. Environmentalists are divided over congestion pricing, but they shouldn't be. Environmentalists know cars are a mixed blessing. And they know car use is amok because the cost of driving bears little relation to the true cost of cars to society in terms of pollution, new roads, hollowed-out inner cities and so forth.

Here's a chance to cut the automobile subsidy, make drivers pay for what they use and generate revenue that could finance public transportation or other alternatives to bumper-to-bumper hell.

Keep moving

Highway gridlock is a classic "tragedy of the commons" - well known to tree-huggers - in which a public resource is drained because there is no marginally higher pricing for marginally higher use and greater scarcity. HOT lanes would help put a proper price on driving.

There is the social equity concern - that HOT lanes will be a rich-man's privilege - but it seems overblown. Ehrlich's tolled lanes would add new capacity, removing competition for free-lane space for those of us driving 1991 Camrys. HOT lanes in California and Houston are reportedly used by drivers from all socioeconomic groups.

And HOT lanes could keep traffic flowing. Isn't that what we want?

"People seem to think that traveling on the road is a God-given right, and that a toll is a greater infringement of that right than is a traffic jam," George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen writes on the Marginal Revolution weblog. "But I can't imagine this mental attitude lasting forever. Just try a trip around the Capital Beltway at 5 p.m. on a rainy day."

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