April 28, 2005

New Technology, New Ideology [8:15 am]

Slowly, but surely, technology enables a change in operation and ideology — just hope the parallels with telecomm don’t emerge here as well: Paying on the Highway to Get Out of First Gear

[A] narrow river of traffic moves swiftly down the middle of this highway. The fast lanes, the 91 Express, are sometimes called Lexus lanes, first class on asphalt. They can turn a two-hour commute to work into a 30-minute zip. For a solo driver, on-time arrival comes with a price: nearly $11 per round trip, a toll collected through electronic signals.

The freeway in places is no longer free. [...]

[...] It is shaping up as one of the biggest philosophical changes in transportation policy since the toll-free interstate highway system was created under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. It mirrors changes taking place overseas as well. London began charging tolls two years ago to enter the center of the city during weekday business hours.

“It’s a big and important shift, and we in the Bush administration think its time has come,” said Mary E. Peters, the federal highway administrator, in an interview. The administration is trying to make it easier for states to convert car pool lanes to toll lanes, and to allow private investors to build and operate highways - and charge for their use.

[...] Now the era of the big new public highway project is over, federal authorities say. But states are still crying out for new roads - or at least ways to make the old ones work - without any signs that gas tax revenue can meet their needs.

[...] “We already paid for these roads,” said Angela Washington, a teacher who takes the torturous commute from this sprawling bedroom community to a job in Orange County, and uses the toll lanes on occasion. “I guess the idea is you buy your way out of congestion, but you do pay.”

[...] “It’s like everything else: you can fly coach, or you can fly first class,” said Caleb Dillon, an X-ray technician in Riverside whose commute is an hour each way. “I’m not a rich guy, but I like having the option of saving time when I really need it.”

[...] The new tolls rely on radio technology to debit an account instantly, and they are priced to ensure maximum flow of traffic and pay for the road but still make it worthwhile for a driver to leave the free road.

“It’s a big cultural shift for people all of a sudden to get used to paying for roads that were free,” said Robert Poole, of the libertarian Reason Foundation. But, he said, “people are so fed up with congestion” that they are open to change.

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