Motorists ring a peal over tolls

GETTING THERE

October 06, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,getting.there@baltsun.com

To say that Bryan D. Fischer of Timonium wasn't persuaded by my Sept. 15 column suggesting variable tolls to relieve congestion on the Bay Bridge is putting it mildly.

Unless he meant such words as "idiotic" and "tyranny" as compliments.

My modest proposal was that - rather than spending billions of dollars and years in court trying to build a bridge to supplement existing capacity - the state should jack up the cost of using the bridge at peak times for discretionary travel.

Conversely, the column suggested, tolls should be refunded for those using Interstate 95 and other toll highways along the often-neglected but perfectly serviceable northern route around the bay. My take was that making the alternate route less costly would be an elegant use of market forces to relieve congestion and extend the bridge's life.

Fischer, who doesn't like tolls at all, didn't see it that way:

Raising tolls to divert traffic to one direction is idiotic at best. How much fuel can we waste by "forcing" people to drive in one direction through toll "incentives"? ... The roads belong to us as taxpayers. One of the primary roles of government is to build our roads - I should not have to pay each time I use it. ...

The idea of a government charging prohibitive tolls to coerce me to drive in a certain way is tyranny. The American revolution was started over a series of taxes. How would our founding fathers feel about this?

I hate to break this to you, Bryan, but one of the outspoken backers of westward expansion along toll-financed turnpikes and canals was a guy named George Washington. He led a revolution over taxes imposed without representation, then accepted the presidency of a company that built a canal and charged tolls to use it.

The fuel-use argument is a better one, though it does raise the question of how much gas gets wasted idling in bridge backups.

But Fischer's reaction is a warning to policymakers who think toll financing of transportation projects will be more popular than taxes. To toll proponents, congestion pricing is an eminently rational use of incentives to apportion scarce capacity. But to Fischer - and I doubt he's alone - toll-based incentives are inherently coercive.

We'll be seeing a lot more of this debate when new express toll lanes open on I-95 northeast of Baltimore in a few years.

Laura Townsend of Anne Arundel County sees "holes" in the arguments for variable tolls.

How does this work? In others words, if a single mom leaves Baltimore with her three kids after work on Friday, ... maybe she factors in an hour or two wait, but what if it goes smoothly because when she gets to the bridge the "congestion pricing" has hiked the cost of crossing up to $20? For many Marylanders that might be a significant impediment. ... Not only are congestion pricing and Lexus lanes regressive, but how can people plan in advance when the price could - theoretically - go up at any time?

Excellent example. For one thing, if this mom lives in Baltimore and is heading to Ocean City on a busy Friday evening, she's highly likely to take more time getting there via the bridge than she would going the northern route. I've driven that route from Ellicott City and found it took only about a half-hour more than it would have taken with a congestion-free crossing of the bridge.

Let's presume this woman knows Friday evening after work is a peak travel time. Because of extensive publicity before the plan is implemented, she would also know congestion pricing will be in effect. Variable message signs on the highways could update drivers on the current tolls.

Our hypothetical mom has options. She can travel the bridge at an off-peak time. Or she can go north. But during peak evening hours, that bridge capacity is needed by Shore commuters who have no practical choice. Discretionary users ought to pay a premium.

Incidentally, the argument for adjusting tolls is especially strong when it comes to trucking. Now a trucker can save money on tolls by using the beat-up Bay Bridge compared with what it would cost to use a robust land route to go the same distance.

A case in point: A tractor-trailer going from Joppa to Ocean City travels about the same distance whether it takes the bridge or a northern route. But to use the bridge it pays $12.50. To use the Kennedy Highway it pays $25 to Maryland and as much as $20 in Delaware. So Maryland and its neighbor essentially subsidize wear and tear on the region's most critical infrastructure.

It's time to recognize Bay Bridge capacity for what it is: a scarce resource that will only get scarcer. There is no plausible scenario that adds significant bay-crossing capacity in the next 20 years. The current toll system doesn't manage demand effectively. We need one that does.

Call it idiotic. Call it tyranny. But let's see a good alternative.

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