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editorial

For Route 3, ‘Lexus lane’ is a turn in wrong direction

On summer weekends, Route 3 can be a forest of delays, as Boston-area families head down to Cape Cod for the weekend. A group of private investors has a solution that’s both intriguing and ultimately problematic: They’ll build a special toll lane from Braintree to Norwell and collect all the receipts.

The unsolicited proposal has spurred state transportation officials to think more deeply about how government and private companies might team up on road construction and maintenance. Such creativity is needed at a time when public resources are scarce. But the creation of so-called “Lexus lanes’’ — where people can opt out of traffic congestion for a fee — raises the uncomfortable specter of a two-tiered transportation system: Quick service for those who are able to pay for it, while everyone else endures lengthy back-ups.

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It may be that some form of premium pricing during busy travel times could help alleviate traffic woes. But any such plan, especially if it involves private companies seeking to make a profit off of tolls, should be part of a broader transportation strategy designed to address the needs of all commuters.

The plan being floated by the Quincy-based law firm Corcoran & Associates would add a dedicated toll lane north and south on Route 3 for 9 miles. Private investors would collect and use toll revenue to finance the roughly $350 million design and construction of the new lanes. The state would be responsible for maintenance and operations, including snow removal.

Attorney Ned Corcoran, who is shopping the proposal for unnamed investors, envisions tolls in the range of $3 to $5. But when traffic volume rises, so would prices. Thus, a wealthy traveler eager for a quicker ride to Chatham might gladly pay $5, $10, or even $20 in tolls; a daily commuter of modest income would be stuck in the slow lane. At first, the addition of a Lexus lane might siphon traffic from the other lanes, giving all a faster ride. Over time, however, the addition of the private lane might actually increase traffic, and could easily diminish the urgency to address the traffic woes of everyday commuters.

Still, there may be ways that private investors can help fund roads, and there needs to be a forum for vetting such proposals. State transportation officials should have appointed a commission years ago to analyze public-private partnerships. If nothing else, Corcoran has identified this gap.

Among the ripe topics for discussion on Corcoran’s proposal: Is the state responsible for bailing out private builders of roads if they fall behind with their lenders? How much regulatory authority would the state have over tolls? Are significant land takings required? Does the inconvenience of a two-year construction period outweigh the benefits?

Any such plan should be part of a broader transportation strategy.

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If the conditions are right, and consistent with public goals like reducing sprawl by encouraging transit-oriented development, private initiatives are worthy of discussion. But for now, the proposal for a Lexus lane on Route 3 falls under the category of unnecessary luxuries.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this editorial misidentified one end of the proposed toll lane. It is in Braintree, not Brockton.

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