Proposals for tolled fast lanes on Route 3 are being denounced as “Lexus lanes”: People with money would take the faster journey on the privately built lanes, while those of modest means would be stuck with a free but slower commute on the existing highway. It would be — horrors — a two-tier transportation system.
Actually, we already have a two-tier system. It’s called the MBTA. If you want free, you can walk. But if you want to get somewhere more quickly, you pay. The walk from Government Center to Copley Square is about 25 minutes, says Google Maps. Take the Green Line, however, and it’s just 6 minutes at a cost of $2. Or you can take a short walk to the 55 bus; getting to Copley this way takes about 12 minutes and costs $1.50.
Saab subways! Bentley buses! What an outrage!
In fact, the notion that people should pay for faster and more convenient transportation is commonplace. The Mass. Pike is an obvious example. Sure, you can get from Boston to Worcester for free by taking Route 9, but it’ll take you at least 67 minutes. Travel the Pike and it’s just 41 minutes — and $3.60. Expensive? Yes. But lots of folks — not just the rich — use it all the time.
The same is true for other kinds of transit. Trains are more expensive than cars; planes are more expensive than trains. We’re willing to pay more because one mode is faster than the other.
So why should things be different on a horrible stretch of roadway from Braintree to Norwell? They shouldn’t be. If people want to pay more for a quicker trip, then by all means let them. That’s the way markets work.
Toll roads have been around since colonial times, but the practicalities and expense of collecting fees made them rare. And toll gates created traffic jams of their own. Technology has now come to the rescue. With transponders and automatic vehicle identification readers (which don’t require cars to slow down), what was once only imagined is increasingly now in place.
The most recent example is in Washington, D.C. The Capital Beltway, the equivalent of our Route 128, has in recent years been a traffic nightmare nearly 24 hours a day; spend some time riding on it, and you’d never complain about Boston traffic again. But in November, construction finally ended on Washington’s own set of Lexus lanes — or, as officials prefer to call them, express lanes. The new lanes parallel the existing Beltway. They’re free to carpoolers of three or more, but otherwise there’s a fee. Toll prices — displayed at each entrance — change dynamically depending on traffic volume. They range from a low of 20 cents a mile up to $1.25 or even more. There is no cap. The goal is to keep prices just high enough so that traffic flows at a pace of 55 miles per hour or more.
Now open, it appears motorists of all income levels are taking advantage of the new roads, and they’re seeing a dramatic reduction in the length of their formerly arduous commutes. Indeed, the biggest complaint is that the express lanes are only on the Virginia side of the Beltway. Maryland, foolishly, didn’t participate.
Are tolls unfair? Hardly. In fact, the fairness complaint cuts the other way. What is unfair is that, because roads are paid collectively through taxes, motorists don’t directly pay the cost of their own commute. Except for gas and perhaps parking, everything else seems free, creating the illusion that driving is cheaper than other modes of travel. If that weren’t the case, many would doubtless use carpools or switch to public transit. That’s why Lexus lanes — which impose costs on drivers — are seen as an environmentally more responsible approach to road building. And in any event, even those who don’t want to pay a toll benefit from Lexus lanes, which siphon off some traffic, making the non-toll road less crowded.
Another point in favor of tolled roads: Because money is to be made, much of the financing can come from private sources. That’s what happened in D.C. with its $2 billion project — something taxpayers never would have coughed up — and the same is proposed for the new lanes along Route 3.
Route 3 is a mess in need of a fix. Express lanes are a smart solution politicians, taxpayers, and commuters should all embrace.
Tom Keane’s column appears weekly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.