The end of the FREE-way?

June 12, 2005
Growing up in New Jersey, I always had to keep a pocket full of change at the ready. You couldn't get anywhere without a toll road -- well, not unless you were willing to try to navigate the state's labyrinthine local road network. The most frustrating part of relying on the Garden State Parkway was the endless stops, roughly every 10 miles, to toss quarters into the toll basket. During rush hour, you often could do better on the surface streets rather than wading through the bottlenecks at the toll plazas. So when I opened up this morning's Detroit News, I was immediately skeptical about a story headling, "Toll lane uncorks clogged freeways."

The story looks a a stretch of I-15, dubbing it a "glimpse of the future." Where some California roads mix regular lanes with commuter -- the so-called diamond -- lanes, the stretch of I-15 north of San Diego now has free lanes and toll lanes. To mangle that old carney line, "you don't pay your money, you take your chances. The piece, actually written by the Associated Press, suggests that those who do cough up the cash are getting a much quicker commute. And the difference between the toll roads I grew up with and the new San Diego toll lanes is technology. There are no toll booths, just electronic metering systems that communicate with an onboard toll payment device. Similar concepts, known alternately as value pricing, or HOT, for High Occupancy Tolls.

"In theory, roads are supposed to be on a "pay as you go" basis-with motor fuels excise taxes covering the tab. The problem is that we're not paying as we go-or at least, someone isn't," Eric Peters, a regular contributor to, wrote a few months back. "Part of the reason for this is that population growth and development have created a demand for new roads that simply can't be funded by the existing level of motor fuels taxes. Talk of raising gas taxes is electoral suicide for a politician-and developers have powerful lobbyists to make sure their profitable projects get approved-irrespective of the gridlock that will inevitably follow. "

The reality is that America's roads are becoming increasingly gridlocked, and whatever the cause, we need a solution. In its Sunday edition, the Detroit News also reported on a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, at Texas A&M University. It found that the annual hours lost due to rush hour driving is approaching 50, while the fuel wasted due to traffic delays is now topping 25 million annually in the U.S. Are toll roads the inevitable answer? Will we create a sort of two-tiered highway system discriminating between the haves-and-have-nots or, if you prefer, the will-pays-and-wonts? There's an interesting alternative being tested in both Oregon and in the U.K. Using satellite navigation systems, your vehicle would record the actual number of miles you drive and bill you accordingly. You might also pay a higher fee depending on where and when you drive.

London has already created a central city zone where you're required to pay a special fee to enter. It seems very likely British lawmakers will enact the pay-as-you-drive system, too, soon. Reports suggest the fees might be as much as $1 a mile. Enacting such direct billing seems unlikely here, especially with folks moving ever further from their jobs and city centers. But some sort of system may yet be needed to either cover the cost of new roads, or encourage folks to drive a little less.

The Car Connection
See the winners »
The Car Connection
Commenting is closed for this article
Ratings and Reviews
Rate and review your car for The Car Connection
Review your car
The Car Connection Daily Headlines
I agree to receive emails from The Car Connection. I understand that I can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy.
Thank you! Please check your email for confirmation.