Monday, December 10, 2007

An Alternative To Tolling Utah's Mountain View Corridor? "Lexus Lanes" To Provide Both Free And Toll Lanes On British Motorways

The proposed Mountain View Corridor for the west side of the Salt Lake Valley has triggered considerable discussion, controversy, and even some acrimony. Most of the acrimony has resulted from a proposal to make the entire corridor a toll road. Public comments about the proposed Corridor can be viewed HERE. While the graphic is a bit crappy, it does provide a visual frame of reference.

Note: Click HERE to visit the Mountain View Corridor page of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) website. UDOT still soliciting public comments until January 24th, 2008.

However, transport planners in the United Kingdom are attempting to split the difference, so to speak. A new scheme under consideration is to create special "toll lanes" or "Lexus lanes" on existing motorways (the British word for freeways). Drivers would be offered the option of paying to overtake queues of traffic on motorways under this idea secretly being considered by the Highways Agency. Full story published December 10th, 2007 by The Times of London.

The extra lane – dubbed a “Lexus lane” because of the perception that only wealthier drivers could afford to use them – would be added either by widening the road or using the hard shoulder. A toll would be introduced to ensure that the extra capacity did not simply fill up with extra traffic.

Senior managers at the Highways Agency believe this scheme would help the government to introduce road pricing on the strategic road network without alienating motorists. The Government has backed away from road pricing since 1.8 million drivers signed a petition against it this year. However, various motoring groups argue that drivers have already paid for existing roads many times over through various taxes and should not be made to pay more for the same poor service.

But the agency’s toll-lane idea could be more acceptable because charges would be introduced only where extra capacity had been added. Drivers could choose either to remain on the existing lanes or to pay a toll for a faster journey. A senior source at the agency told The Times: “The technology for turning the hard shoulder into a running lane could have other applications, such as collecting and enforcing tolls. Drivers would have a choice; no one would be forced to pay to use the toll lane.”

The agency source said that the gantries deployed across existing motorways ar regular intervals already carry CCTV cameras and could easily carry automatic, numberplate-recognition cameras, which would be needed to enforce a toll lane. Sensors could also be installed to detect electronic payment tags fitted on dashboards. Tolls would be deducted automatically as drivers passed underneath the gantries.

Under another option being considered, drivers carrying at least one passenger would be allowed to use the toll lane without paying. The agency is already planning to introduce car-sharing lanes – also known as high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes – between the M62 and the M606 near Bradford, West Yorkshire, and between junctions 7 and 10 on the M1 in Hertfordshire. The HOV scheme is already in use on I-15 and on many other American freeways.

Edmund King, director of the RAC Foundation, said that drivers would be much more willing to accept tolls for additional capacity than for existing roads. “This idea could make all the difference in convincing the public of the benefits of road pricing,” he said. “Drivers would feel that they were getting something for their money.”

A similar scheme operates on some highways in California, where drivers pay between 75 cents (37p) and $8 to use a special lane. The price can vary every 12 minutes depending on the level of congestion, with the toll rising when necessary to deter too many people from using the lane. This ensures that the toll lane always flows faster than the other lanes. [Ed. Note: Changing the price on the fly is too unpredictable and should not be done.]

Commentary: Interesting. Would this be a worthy compromise to make the Mountain View Corridor more palatable to the public, yet easier on the treasury? Or would it set a dangerous plutocratic precedent? If the tolls were used only for road and bridge maintenance, that might be a positive selling point. Still, the idea of paying additional for a service or product that we've been getting "free" through taxation for many years seems repugnant; it's almost like paying twice. You can thank the mercantilists who embrace the Darwinian concept that there should be a price tag on every breath of air we take.

However, what we as Americans must be further concerned about is the possibility that the tolling rights to the Mountain View Corridor might be sold to foreigners. Read this Alaska Pride post from December 2006 about how the tolling rights to the Indiana Turnpike were sold to a foreign consortium, and how Goldman-Sachs brokered the deal.

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