Freeways (For a Fee)

Mark this in your diary: The great American free ride is fast coming to an end. In the years ahead, the solution to traffic congestion will be toll roads. From San Francisco to Houston, Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, transportation officials have decided that the next great wave of highway construction will come with an explicit price--and sometimes not a cheap one.
by | February 2005

Mark this in your diary: The great American free ride is fast coming to an end. In the years ahead, the solution to traffic congestion will be toll roads. From San Francisco to Houston, Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, transportation officials have decided that the next great wave of highway construction will come with an explicit price--and sometimes not a cheap one. In Atlanta, rush-hour travelers may fork over as much as $4.65 to get to work in the future. What's going on here? Part of it is philosophical: Many state legislators, particularly Republicans, have a problem with the free part of freeways. They think people ought to pay in proportion to the public benefits they receive, just as they do for water or electricity. But there's economics at play here, too. Road construction is dauntingly expensive, especially in urbanized areas. Result, said one Atlanta area official: "There's simply not enough money" to pay for road expansion out of existing gasoline taxes. There's yet another factor: Some states, such as Georgia, have opened the door for private companies to build and manage toll roads, including new lanes on existing highways--and these companies are busy building legislative and bureaucratic support for these projects. Many commuters are appalled by the idea of paying to drive, but toll-road advocates say drivers will get used to it. Said one Texas legislator who's pushing toll roads. " [People] are not mad someone is charging two bucks for bottled water."

WHO'S RUNNING THIS TRAIN?

Most big-city transit systems are in deep financial trouble these days. This may be a good time to step back and ask the larger question: Why doesn't transit work better in the U.S.? Consider transit's advantages: In densely populated areas, it's a cheaper way of moving people than requiring that families buy cars and governments build roads. It's more easily scalable--that is, you can add cars to a train more easily than lanes to a road. It's kinder to the environment. And voters consistently support transit, particularly when the alternative is more roads. So what's wrong with transit? Libertarians say it's that Americans love their cars and won't be herded onto buses or trains. Maybe, but here's another explanation: We've so divided responsibility for decisions affecting transit that, in reality, nobody's in charge. Think about how it works in your city. Very likely you have a transit system that's run by a regional board, highways that are built by the state, and land-use decisions that are made by the city--all operating independently of one another. The result is all kinds of crazy decisions: regional rail systems extending lines alongside brand-new state-built roads; cities and counties approving new subdivisions that can't be served by transit and will require new roads in the future; and (surprise!) transit systems that are underutilized and broke. What's the answer? Some sort of system that combines land-use and transportation decisions. Don't be surprised if such a system produces more support for trains.

PASS THE PEAS TO CAMBRIDGE

Ever thought about what happens to people whose houses straddle the border between two cities? Sounds like a joke, but it happens all the time--and life can be tricky for these homeowners. Take the 128 houses situated on the line between the Boston suburbs of Cambridge and Somerville. (Local officials call them "border properties.") City services are easy. Only one city picks up your trash. But nearly every other thing is complicated. Take where you vote. The rule of thumb is that you vote where you sleep--literally, which city your bedroom happens to be in. One border property resident, who was determined to be a Cambridge voter, said she was prepared to move down the hall in order to stay on the voter rolls there. Another big problem: Where do your children go to school? Again, the rule is which city their bedroom is in, but this leads to the obvious problem: What if the kids' bedrooms are in different cities? (Said the Somerville school superintendent, "We'd work it out.") The real nightmare, though, is home renovations. Depending on the changes, you may have to get building permits from both cities, which means wending your way through two bureaucracies.

PERHAPS I MISUNDERSTOOD THE QUESTION

While campaigning for Miami-Dade mayor last August, Carlos Alvarez was asked during a debate whether the mayor's office needed greater powers. Nope, he said. The county charter gives the mayor all the authority he needs. Darndest thing, but Alvarez, who won in November, told the Miami Herald recently that he couldn't remember ever saying that. In fact, he's now seeking to do the very thing he thought was unnecessary last summer: strengthen the mayor's office. Alvarez is interested in gaining the ability to hire and fire department heads-- now held by the appointed county manager--and he wants to strip county commissioners of their power to award contracts.

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