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Express toll lanes a bit elitist, and unpractical [Editorial]

CommutingHighway and Road Transportation

It sounds too good to be true, so there's a good chance it is. State officials say the new express toll lanes on I-95, expected to open for use in 2014, will ease traffic issues both on the toll lanes, and on the free lanes.

The logic goes like this: when the toll lanes, which will start near White Marsh and continue into Baltimore, open, enough people will be willing to pay the variable rate of between 25 and 35 cents a mile that traffic will also thin out for people in the non-toll lanes.

Now it has been observed that when Marx and Engles came up with communist theory way back in the late 1800s, a key flaw was overlooked. It's hard to expect the average worker to be content to produce according to his abilities and be given only what is needed when the dream of the average worker is to make enough money so as not to have to work any more. Had this reality been focused on prior to 1917, a possibly fatally flawed system would not have been in place in so many countries for such a large part of the 20th century.

It remains to be seen if the problem of everyone waiting for everyone else to use the toll lanes, resulting in continued traffic jams on I-95, will come to pass. Possibly, it will work just fine and enough people will be willing to pay the toll that commutes are made easier for all.

If it doesn't work out that way, however, there are at least two other options that would ease rush hour traffic jams on I-95:

• Do what is done on the New Jersey Turnpike, where one set of lanes is reserved for cars only; trucks and buses are relegated to the other set of lanes. The comparison is less than perfect in this option because the whole of the New Jersey Turnpike is a toll road, while I-95 from White Marsh to Baltimore would have to be a no-toll road under this option. Essentially, it would simply open all the lanes to all traffic.

• Do what is done on I-270 between Washington, D.C., and Frederick and on Route 50 between the Capital Beltway and Route 301, which is turn the extra lanes into carpool-only lanes. The term in vogue for such lanes among transportation planners is HOV lanes or high occupancy vehicle lanes. In Maryland, the rule is any vehicle with two or more people in it (a driver and at least one passenger) is eligible to use the HOV lanes. Those who use the lanes while driving alone are subject to a $90 fine. This not only adds lanes designed to ease congestion, but also has the worthy public policy goal of encouraging carpooling.

This second point brings up another major problem with the nearly complete set of express toll lanes: they constitute something of an experiment on commuters in a high traffic area in the Baltimore suburbs that commuters in the D.C. suburbs weren't subjected to. That is to say, when extra lanes were called for on I-270 and Route 50, the solution was carpool lanes; when extra lanes were called for along I-95 northeast of Baltimore, the solution was to levy a toll on commuters.

Moreover, the major reconstruction on I-95, especially at the Beltway interchange, seems to have been designed for the purpose of installing the toll lanes without expanding the traffic capacity of the non-toll lanes. Specifically, a major source of congestion at the Beltway interchange with I-95 resulted from I-95 narrowing to three lanes. Now that the non-toll lane portion of the reconstruction project is complete, the three-lane bottleneck at the beltway remains.

The inherent unfairness of having a public works project that caters only to the portion of the population that can afford to pay extra to drive on these so-called Lexus lanes aside, practical considerations associated with the soon-to-be open express toll lanes seem to have been ignored in the planning process.

The proposed tolls for new I-95 lanes are little more than a side issue to the matter of the elitist move of establishing one roadway for the well-to-do and another, more congested one, for everyone else.

The only bright side to this is there will be an extra two lanes in each direction on I-95 for Harford County commuters and if the Lexus lane tolls end up not working, there are other options that can be tried.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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