Fresh thinking on $s for transportation
by Peter Samuel

April 23, 2003

Maryland needs some fresh thinking about funding transportation. Budget exigencies produced a $400 million raid on the state's transportation trust fund in the last legislative session, yet Governor Ehrlich is clearly committed to advancing the Inter County Connector, new capacity on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and a host of other needed projects. The economic viability and quality of life of the state demand innovations which will keep the deadweight of taxation down, yet provide new revenue streams to fund urgent projects to allow our citizens to move around efficiently.

No one wants any new toll plazas -- those vast dismal tracts of asphalt where vehicles line up to tediously pay cash at all those little toll booths. They cost the toll agency too much in staff salaries, and customers too much in aggravation. Often paying the toll is more nuisance than the cost of the toll.

E-ZPass toll transponders and other kinds of modern electronic toll collection are the answer, with let-the-user-pay being the key principle to be implemented. The first place to implement full highway speed electronic toll collection via E-ZPass is at the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Maryland taxpayers are forking out, at latest count, $1,486 million (See: Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, Financial Plan Update 2002 p5) of which only a fifth has been paid. Some $1,200 millions are still due. This is one of the biggest commitments to any single project in Maryland history.

Maryland taxpayers deserve a return on that huge investment. Never before in the history of American highways has such a large bridge been built WITHOUT tolls. A new span for the San Francisco Bay bridge (I-80) now under construction is being tolled. So is a new span over the Tacoma Narrows in the Seattle WA area. If commuters in California and Washington state can pay tolls on expensive new bridges why can't people crossing the Potomac?

A large proportion of the users of the expensive new Wilson bridge will be non-Marylanders -- people just passing through. Tolls are the way to get something back from these users. When the bridge was first planned in the early 1990s it was envisaged that a $2 toll would be charged. At the projected traffic of 180,000 vehicles per day weekdays (half that at weekends) that $2 toll would yield $108 million per year.

Tolls have an advantage too in traffic management. By varying the toll rate by time of day it is possible to encourage some travelers –- for whom the trip time is discretionary – to vary the time of their trip, reducing the congestion for those who have to travel at the busiest time. Such a market-oriented scheme is desperately needed too on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as anyone who travels it on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon knows well. The proceeds of a peaktime premium toll could be committed to construction of a new 3-lane span. On completion the middle 2-lane span could be deployed as a reversible, and the peak toll discontinued – or used to fund extra lanes on the connecting roads on the Eastern Shore.

Also urgent is an alternative to the American Legion Bridge on the Beltway --a so-called Second Crossing upstream on the Potomac to provide a direct connection between the Dulles Airport area and I-270 in about Gaithersburg. Given the roundabout and congested routes now traveled via the Beltway this would be self-financing as a toll project. No need to worry about having to use any tax monies for the construction. The big problem, given the lamentable lack of planning for a Second Crossing, is not money but finding an acceptable route, or mode of construction. It may need to be tunneled to minimize property disruption and traffic impacts.

I-270 is another highway in need of work, especially north of Clarksburg. The extra lanes needed could be separated off with light dividers and tolled as premium-service express lanes - as is being done successfully in California and Houston TX.

And let's abolish HOV lanes. They are a dismal failure with no proven benefits. They should be the basis for a premium lanes toll network on I-270, I-495, US-50, and I-695. Just as we have FedEx providing overnight delivery at a premium over the US postal service, or business class as well as economy on the airlines, so on major highways we need to provide a guaranteed quick ride by the congestion - for a price.

Finally we should privatize the state toll operations. They are businesses, and business is best done by business, not by government. The state of Italy privatized its largest toll operator Autostrade recently. The same has been done in Ontario Canada with the 407 Electronic Toll Route, a major tollroad system around the northside of Toronto. The Australians, the French, and the British, too, are having investors bear the burdens and take the risks on toll projects - in return for the right to levy tolls for 50 years, or so. Maryland could realize several billion dollars by franchising out toll operations like the harbor tunnels in Baltimore, the Bay Bridge and the Kennedy Highway (I-95) at the Susquehanna River.

Increasing taxes to pay for these things is quite unnecessary, and it is false to claim "there's no money" for these road projects. There's plenty of money for them. It's in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of motorists sitting in traffic, many of whom would gladly pay the price of a quick, safe ride if only the politicians would give them that opportunity.

Peter Samuel is publisher of TOLL ROADS NEWSLETTER and an adjunct scholar at the Reason Public Policy Institute. He is a resident of Frederick Maryland. He may be reached at 301 631 1148 or by email at petersamuel@mac.com


This story first appeared on the Maryland Taxpayers Association website April 23, 2003.

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