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April 3, 2008

Of Traffic Woes and Solutions

Tony Soltero

Traffic congestion is an issue most of us can relate to, whatever our political leanings. A significant number of Frederick County residents – myself included – commute daily to jobs in the D.C. and Baltimore areas, sometimes crossing over into Virginia. License plates from Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania dot the major arteries in the region every morning and evening.


And the traffic situation isn't getting any better. As more and more people enter the workforce every year, the roads get more and more heavily clogged, and traffic that used to be considered heavy at 7 A.M. is now typical for 5:30. The costs of gridlock are both tangible – in the hours lost and gasoline expended sitting waiting for the next light to change – and the intangible – in the frustration that seeps into our psyches, ruining our moods and occasionally leading to ugly road-rage incidents.


We want solutions. We're tired of sitting in traffic. We're tired of wasting all that time and money. And our leaders know this and are trying to come up with answers.


And there's one currently being floated that sounds good on the surface, but upon close examination is simply a bad idea that needs to be smothered before it gains any traction.


That's the "variable tolls" proposal, which is sometimes referred to as the "Lexus Lanes" idea. The concept is that certain lanes on major arteries – I-270 for instance – would carry toll rates that vary with the time of day and day of week. Some of the fees being proposed are eye-popping – six dollars a mile – and overall the net effect would be to reserve significant parts of a major public highway to a few economic elites.


Now, this completely flies in the face of the entire concept of "public highways," paid for by our tax dollars. It is true that we've always had a few toll roads, but tolls have always been uniformly applied, and the burden spread evenly across all motorists. Special privileges on toll roads are usually restricted to regular daily users, not unlike a frequent-flyer club for airlines. The idea that some drivers get a personal lane just by the virtue of being affluent is an affront to the regular taxpayer.


But that's just the philosophical objection. The practical implications are even worse, because this kind of proposal will not do anything to relieve congestion. It will worsen the problem instead.


How so?


Well, consider that this proposal will do nothing to address the basic cause of increasing gridlock – the ever-narrowing ratio between the number of vehicles and the available miles of roadway. “Lexus Lanes” will rope off a portion of the available asphalt. The absolute number of cars on the road isn't going to decrease any. They'll just have to take other routes. And these alternative routes, hardly sparse to begin with, will get flooded with new vehicles. The pace of traffic will move from slow to glacial.


And anyone who's ever driven on I-95 between Springfield and Fredericksburg, VA, knows what unholy messes ensue when "express" lanes eventually merge with "regular" ones.


This is not an optimal solution.


But this problem isn't going away. What would be a strong approach?


It would probably be best to attack the problem from a multitude of directions. We should expand mass transit, and ensure that it actually takes commuters to and from major job centers, with schedules and speeds that make it worthwhile.


We should initiate more carpooling incentives. And we should look at bringing more of these appealing, high-paying jobs to Frederick. In this hyper-wired age, there's less and less reason for jobs to be physically located inside the D.C. Beltway.


All it takes is a little political will, and a resistance to taking the easy way out and embracing "solutions" that will simply make the problem worse.


Frederick has the chance to be an innovative leader in addressing transportation problems. It is time to seize the moment.

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