- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Anything that's free or at least perceived to be will be overused. This is one reason why our roads are increasingly clogged and why building our way out of gridlock is not likely to relieve gridlock. What might help, though, is introducing a little free-market medicine specifically, tolls.

Such a solution has been offered by a private contractor, Fluor Daniel, as part of a plan to increase the capacity of the Capital Beltway. The region's major thoroughfare is already significantly over capacity and projected to become virtually impassable within the next 20 years. Rush "hour" will become 14-plus hours per day of near-standstill traffic, effectively paralyzing the region and making local travel an unimaginable ordeal. The effect on the regional economy to say nothing of the quality of life for area residents would be disastrous. Something clearly must be done.

The plan put forward by Fluor Daniel to deal with the impending morass envisions adding four lanes to the existing Beltway, two in each direction (for 12 total) at major traffic choke points, including the I-95/I-495 Springfield interchange. But the real innovation is the suggestion that toll revenue be used to finance the upgrade. Fluor Daniel claims that the creation of toll lanes, with fees ranging from as low as $1 to perhaps as high as $4, would make the project financially viable, as well as help keep traffic flow manageable by limiting unnecessary trips. Critics, including Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, have derided the toll lanes as "Lexus lanes" that would allow affluent motorists to escape gridlock while condemning low-income motorists to sit and stew.

However, there is much to commend the basic concept of self-financing roads with a built-in mechanism for managing traffic volume. On the one hand, while it is true that those with a little extra money would be more able to avail themselves of the less crowded toll lanes, it is also true that the regular lanes would likely see a decrease in volume as a side effect. California has had good results with toll lanes (known as HOT lanes), and it seems Washington could emulate the example without making matters any worse than they already are or will be, as the depth and breadth of gridlock increases with each passing year.

Moreover, the proposal to use tolls as a means of financing improvements to the Beltway may be the only way that the roadwork ever gets under way. The Virginia Department of Transportation has estimated that widening the Beltway to 12 lanes would cost between $2.3 billion and $3.5 billion. To put that figure in perspective, the regional taxing authority being pushed by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner to fund road improvements would generate all of $200 million. Where, precisely, will the remaining $2 billion to $3 billion come from? No one has a clue. Virginia, which is home to about half the I-495 Beltway, is in financial straits, with massive budget shortfalls predicted. It's not much better in Maryland. New taxes aren't going to solve the shortfall problem, leaving aside the damage they would do to family budgets. "The time is probably here when the piper has to be paid," said AAA's Lon Anderson, who remains less-than-enthusiastic about the potential for $4 one-way toll charges.

Like it or lump it, though, the only way we'll see any relief from gridlock is by going with something along the lines proposed by Fluor Daniel. Paying to get moving may be a better deal than not moving at all.

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