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EDITORIAL: Georgia’s tolling nightmare

Old Dominion set to repeat the Peach State’s mistake

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Virginia is sticking stubbornly by its unpopular decision to convert Interstate 95 into one big toll road. The idea is to double-tax drivers from the North Carolina border all the way up to Stafford County and then have high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes take over up to Interstate 395. The commonwealth's residents instinctively know this is a dumb idea.

Last month, a Quinnipiac University survey found 52 percent don't want tolls. Notably, the opposition was spread equally among Republicans, Democrats, independents, men and women. And the results likely would have been far more negative if voters had realized HOT schemes have a long history of failure. Take Georgia, which took away 15 miles of existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes last month to charge motorists up to $5.40 for the privilege of commuting between DeKalb and Gwinnett counties on Interstate 85 - a trip that previously had been free.

The social engineers behind such grand experiments pretend tolling is a "free-market" solution to congestion. Instead of adding new capacity to meet demand, the idea is to price the existing, insufficient capacity and "manage" the demand. It all works out perfectly in the confines of an ivory tower, but it's a disaster when translated onto the asphalt. "We typically don't have complete-halt traffic here," said Lawrenceville, Ga., resident Chris Haley about his new commute. "But in the first few weeks the lanes were implemented, it was near at a dead stop. You're looking over in the left-hand HOT lane, and it's empty."

Mr. Haley told The Washington Times that he was so outraged that his daily commute doubled from 40 to 90 minutes a day that he set up the website to chronicle the project's failings. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal took note of the problem and intervened to lower the sky-high tolls. With cheaper rates, more people are using the HOT lanes, but the basic problem remains. Mr. Haley's analysis of the road's traffic data shows the same total number of people are using the regular freeway lanes, but they're being forced to leave far earlier or later than they had done previously to avoid the jam.

It's hard to see how the lanes could survive financially at prices and traffic levels far below projections. Such unrealistic predictions are common. The most recent annual report for Washington state's 3-year-old HOT lanes on State Route 167 boasts of extracting $420,400 in gross revenue from drivers, but it neglects to mention the net loss of $173,939 through March 2011.

So the states lose money and commuters are stuck with higher bills and worse traffic. It turns out that the only winners here are the private contractors responsible for the massive overhead needed to keep the tolling operation running smoothly. Little surprise that these companies frequently can be found behind the scenes lavishing money on legislators and encouraging pundits to sing the praises of the schemes that line their pockets.

When government sets out to manipulate public behavior, failure is the inevitable result. Virginia's transportation problem won't be solved unless the commonwealth stops wasting $6 billion on transit boondoggles like the Metro to Dulles International Airport. That money, which is being taken from drivers, should be invested instead in maximizing general freeway capacity by doing away with failed HOV and HOT experiments.

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