Monday, December 12, 2005

Brave New World of Toll Roads

The Washington Post today has one of those what-it-all-means trend stories, this one on the rise of toll-funded roads in the D.C. region... It also has a nice graphic showing where the toll roads are planned. Says the Post:
'The vision of a regionwide network of these highways has suddenly come into focus just a year after Virginia and Maryland first showed serious interest in the concept. Maryland plans to begin construction on its first express lanes next year, while Virginia plans to build them on a 14-mile stretch of the Beltway within five years.
The projects, many of which will be built and operated by private firms, represent a radical shift in the way highways are financed and operated and promise to transform the way drivers in the Washington area and the nation travel.
"If you look at the full potential of this for the region, I think it's the biggest thing since Metro," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "These are very significant and could be just the beginning. We haven't had highways of this magnitude in 20 or 30 years."'
Critics raise the "Lexus Lane" issue, which seems a fair point. Converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes is going to fill up that unused capacity there, which will help the general lanes somewhat, but continued growth in the outer suburbs is going to soon fill up that capacity. There's also the issue, says the Post, of having a number of different companies operating roads.
"There are some very real technological and pricing issues," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "One of the things the region and commonwealth are looking at is some sort of umbrella or oversight group to make sure all the different pricing serves the public good."


At 11:16 AM, Blogger Steve Haner said...

There was an excellent piece on the front of last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal (still the world's best newspaper) about where this capital is coming from. As I recall it named two main sources: Australia's mandatory retirement savings plan, which requires all workers to bank 9 percent of their gross income and surging oil revenues (still around $60 a barrel.)

Re: the oil revenues. A bit of irony here. The price of gas is the main reason we are told we cannot raise the gas tax, so instead we are going to borrow back some of the money we paid in the retail price instead. When you capitalize a billion dollar loan over 30 years at 12 percent, how much to you really pay? How would that compare to a $1 billion straight tax increase?

That is the choice we face -- it's the T word either way -- taxes or tolls.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I keep telling these guys that say we can do this "for free - no cost" that it only means the cost will be paid some other way. Given the politics of payments (don't tax you, don't tax mee, tax the guy behind the tree) it frequently means that the alternative either penalizes someone unfairly, benefits someone unfairly, or both.

This probably will be the biggest thing since METRO. After all it is the first time since METRO that we have made a major initiative IN BUILDING ROADS.

Continued Growth in the outer suburbs will soon fill up the Lexus Lane capacity. Well, where all these people going? Doesn't anyone see that this is the link between land use and transportation? Wouldn't it be easier and less expensive to move the destinations to where people live? If the new capacity is going to be used up, is there any other solution that meets the common sense test?

Oh, right. I forgot about mass transit. Having leaned that we cannot transport everyone to ne place using autos, what makes us think we can do it using transit? Transit is already exhibiting the exact same congestion problem that autos have, and it serves a much smaller popution/area.

Mass transit would be simply substituting one failed technical solution for another one, when the answer is social, not technical. EMR argues that pi r squared means that you only nead a little more distance to accomodate a lot more people. Well, that is exactly what has happened, and now we have not the infrastructure to support them. "We can't build more roads, we haven't got the room". Right, and we haven't got the room or the money for all the other complex/compact infrastructure either.

Pat McSweeney hit the nail on the head: "Virginians, like their compatriots elsewhere in the United States, are of two minds about sprawl. They decry the effects, but are unwilling to take the painful steps necessary to stop it. They favor increased spending for public transportation, but generally will not abandon their own automobiles to use it. They want to retard new subdivisions, but only after they have their own homes on large lots."

If you look closely at these apparent dichotomies or conundrums what you see is that fundamentally they are all about cost and choice. More specifically they are about reducing other people's choice and increasing other people's costs.

So when Secretary Homer says: "One of the things the region and commonwealth are looking at is some sort of umbrella or oversight group to make sure all the different pricing serves the public good." I see it as a justification of what I have been saying: we don't know anywhere near enough to decide what plan is cheapest or most efficient.

Pat McSweeney says "Roads can’t be built fast enough to meet the rising demand. Mass transportation solutions will be more expensive than users and taxpayers will tolerate." in one breath and in the next he says "Any strategy that curbs sprawl will increase the cost of land for residential and commercial development. That is an unavoidable reality."

So how does the free market respond? Well, people analyze higher land costs as compared to other costs and then they "find housing that is within their means at great distance from their jobs."

So, If roads can't be built fast enough, and mass transportation is to expensive (and inconvenient for people to tolerate) and "more efficient use of land" results in higher prices, higher taxes, more pollution, more congestion, and 100% runoff, then what answer is left?

Well, we can have still more dense population areas. We already complain that "Where streams formerly meandered within their ancient banks, we now see huge, channelized rivers constructed with substantial taxpayer funding in a futile attempt to deal with the heightened runoff from land cleared for suburban development." So we can't very well say that more compact development will solve that problem, because it will result in a need for 100% runoff controls, and not only channelized streams, but buried ones. Hardly a good, efficient or inexpensive way to develop.

If we need "...these natural streams, as well as the forests and fields that had retained some of the rainfall, slowed the rate of runoff and allowed normal recharge of aquifers." Doesn't that imply that these features need to be incorporated in our living patterns and we need to use more land, not less?

We all love our farms, but if we want to consider efficient use of land, the fist thing we would do is eliminate enough of our farms so that the ones remaining could make a profit. If we have a suburban congestion issue, then it is because, as EMR says, suburban isn't suburban anymore. It's urban,and that is why you have congestion: too many people in one place.

All of our proposed transportation options support sprawl. More highways, more transit, congestion fees, tolls, parking restrictions: all of these promote sprawl. Building restrictions promote sprawl, either through larger lots or higher prices. None of or planning actions even address schools, which are a real driver in where we live AND the single most expensive part of our infrastructure.

Virtually everything we do promotes sprawl, then we wonder why we have sprawl. If you look at the state of our denser areas, and the costs and taxes associated with living there, you can see why we promote sprawl. Yet, in spite of the obvious facts staring us in the face we are going to blame sprawl for our problems, and at the same time claim we need more space for environmental amenities.

So McSweeney hit it on the head, the problem we have with sprawl is that we don't know if it is real or imagined.


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