The fast lane

May 10, 2004

IT'S 5 P.M. and you're late for an appointment. Instead of getting stuck in rush-hour traffic, you opt for the express lane. For a few bucks you can speed right along. You don't even have to stop at a toll booth. Detectors along the road recognize the cell-phone-size transponder in your car and automatically bill your account.

Last week, Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan announced a "vision" in which so-called express toll lanes would help ease congestion on some of the state's busiest roads. Mr. Flanagan's eyes grow big when it comes to technology. Earlier this year, he had a vision for buses stuffed with $30,000 worth of electronics. Fortunately, his ideas for highways deserve more serious consideration.

Here's why. First, the technology involved is well-tested. Maryland commuters already use it regularly with the E-Z Pass transponders on the Harbor Tunnel and elsewhere. E-Z Pass drivers have to slow down now only because that's how the toll plazas are configured; they could just as easily be read on a fast-moving car.

More important, toll lanes are needed because the state flat-out doesn't have the tax dollars to seriously upgrade overcrowded highways such as Interstates 95 and 270 or the Capital and Baltimore beltways. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. helped see to that -- he refused to increase the state gas tax this year. His push for higher car registration fees got him only about half of what was needed to keep up with the state's growing transportation needs.

Parris N. Glendening derided the concept as "Lexus lanes" when he was governor, and there's some truth to that. Along California's State Route 91, a 10-mile stretch of express lane in Orange County can cost up to $6.25 during the afternoon rush (but much less during off-peak times). The presence of express lanes doesn't mean the non-toll payers have it easy, however -- the whole concept depends on other commuters still getting stuck in traffic. Without gridlock, there's no incentive to pay a toll to escape it.

The proposal's most fundamental problem is that it requires the mixing of tax money with toll revenue, something that's never been done in this state. It means taxpayers will be subsidizing toll roads for the affluent. Is that fair? It can be in some cases -- but only if everyone truly benefits.

The first potential use of express tolls doesn't present this problem. The state is considering widening by two lanes in each direction a 10-mile stretch of I-95 north of Baltimore between White Marsh and the I-95/I-895 split. That's already a toll-financed road, and we think express toll lanes there are worth serious consideration.

But one more caveat. Mr. Flanagan needs to investigate the use of toll lanes to encourage car-pooling, one of the most effective ways to relieve traffic congestion. Yet Maryland has done little for car-poolers. On California's SR 91, cars with three or more occupants ride free. California officials say it's caused carpool use to rise 40 percent. Now that's a smart use of technology.

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