(Martin Di Caro -- Washington, DC, WAMU) You pay for electricity, your phone and Internet. You pay for most, if not all, of the services you use every day. Should highways be different? Virginia says the future answer will be no -- and drivers should be ready to pay a premium for a faster ride on congested highway corridors.
Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) officials are banking on drivers' willingness to pay an electronic EZ Pass toll for a faster commute on the I-495 express lanes that are set to open late this year. Tolls on the new section of the beltway will rise as traffic volume in the express lanes increases. Dynamic tolling, as this practice is called, is relatively new in the United States.
"The day of free highways is behind us," said Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and a former assistant transportation secretary under George W. Bush. Frankel said governments need the revenue that tolls would provide, and charging a premium to use express lanes serves another purpose: turning highways into a commodity.
"When you think about highway space as a product, it's limited," said Frankel. "Supply is constrained. And the only way to control how that supply is going to be allocated is by pricing it."
Dynamic tolling is relatively uncommon in the U.S. compared to Europe and Australia. In the U.S. it's been a success on State Route 91 in southern California, where critics said the so-called Lexus Lanes would only be used by rich people, Frankel said.
"In fact, the experience in California is quite the opposite. The lanes are most frequently used by people with limited time," said Frankel, who said getting motorists used to paying tolls is hard because of the idea that highways should be free.
Commuter Bevin Bresnahan, who was gassing up in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, typifies that attitude. "I think everything should be free," she laughed. "We pay enough in gas, we pay enough in taxes."
The company that will operate the tolls on the I-495 express lanes says the typical toll during rush hour will be between $5-6 dollars one way, the average trip length is expected to be about four to six miles, and motorists are expected to use the new lanes a couple of times a week.
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