Monday, August 27, 2007

Coming soon to your friendly freeway: Tolls!

Pennsylvania has long been called the "Keystone" state in part because it often blazes trails, and if what you're about to read sets a trend for the rest of the US, then Canada can't be too far behind and that is truly a frightening thought.

While toll roads have been around for eons, it was Pennsylvania that opened up the first modern expressway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A number of interstates as well as some state highways make up the system as we know it today; and it's on EZ Pass, the electronic tolling system that covers much of the northeast and part of the mid-West. But apparently a toll increase just a couple of years ago is not enough. Seems that another east-west route -- I-80 -- has become the favourite of truckers going through the state. Serves to reason considering the toll for trucks on I-76 going from Ohio to New Jersey is at least $122, even with EZ Pass. (For cars, it's $22.75 for 357 miles, not a bad deal compared to the 407.)

So what does Ed Rendell, the governor of the state, want to do? Turn I-80 into the second mainline of the Turnpike, by putting up 10 electronic gantries (without tollbooths, like Ontario's 407 or Route 91 in the OC) along the route's length, every 30 miles or so. In other words, an existing free highway would become a toll road.

This isn't like what's been done in some states where toll lanes are put down the median of a free road -- new express lanes for those willing to pay, while the existing road becomes collector lanes for those who don't. This is a major route that is a lifeline to the whole of the Northeast, and there are no plans to put a third lane down the median strip. Needless to say, the longstanding tensions between the mostly conservative rural regions and the two major urban cities -- Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- has heated up to the point of near explosion.

The problem lies in a loophole in federal law that allows free roads to be converted to tolled ones provided revenues raised go towards better roads for all. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, wants to use it for public transit. Only the two cities above, and possibly the capital of Harrisburg, could possibly benefit from better bus and subway service. Not to mention that the whole plan may be illegal since I-80 was built in the first place with federal money, not bond issues like the Pike was.

I can appreciate Rendell trying to get creative. It's better than his original idea of leasing out the Pike for decades to a private group. (They tried that in Indiana, and the people revolted at the polls, but the damage was done.) But if the idea is to impose user fees without raising taxes, it's still not a good way to do it. Since most of the people who use the interstates are actually from out of state, it becomes a captive tax on the unwilling, just like a hotel tax. To shunpike, one would have to take side roads just before the gantries. That would increase traffic on rural roads as well as greenhouse gases.

Frankly, they could make just as much money selling naming rights to the road.

It's just a matter of time before Dalton decides there's money to be had, perhaps not in tolling, but in naming rights too. Imagine driving up from Hamilton to Barrie -- first take the Tim Horton's QEW, exit at the Microsoft 427, head east on the Globe and Mail 401 and then north on the Molson's 400. But don't be surprised if the 401 is tolled sooner or later. That'll be pretty much the end of Ontario right there.

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Saskboy said...

Gosh I'm tired. I thought you said Trolls. I thought we needed some of those under the bridges that collapse to warn us it's coming.

tarobins said...

I've been rooting for a tool 401 for a while. Short of a doubling of the price of gas it's the only thing that will stop people from commuting by car into work in toronto every day.