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Buy your way out of traffic jams

By Tom MeadSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2003



Ever stared at the endless stretch of red brake lights ahead of you as you crept through the exhaust cloud of yet another traffic jam? Legislators in Washington State will soon be considering a proposal for raising road repair and development revenue by auctioning some relief from that frustration.

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How do you set a price on relief? On eBay.

Washington state Rep. Fred Jarrett is making the proposal that solo drivers, commercial truckers, and delivery services such as UPS and FedEx may be willing to pay for the privilege and advantage of using High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. These lanes are currently reserved, under penalty of heavy fines, for buses and private vehicles holding at least two occupants.

"It's important that government start to think creatively," Mr. Jarrett says. "If we can take advantage of methods that have been developed by the business community, to do things better and cheaper for the public, we should take advantage of those methods to better provide public services and facilities."

To determine just how much individuals or corporations will pay for the HOV lane privilege, state officials will consider auctioning, on the online site eBay, a limited number of monthly HOV access permits.

"We know that local and state governments have been using eBay more and more in the last several years for everything from getting rid of repossessed and discarded merchandise to ... rais[ing] revenue," says eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove. "Even the US Postal Service has a regular series of listings on eBay to get rid of dead-letter and unforwardable-type merchandise." The site is aware that some sellers have been using it to determine the open-market value of products, Mr. Purslove says, just as Washington is discussing doing with HOV permits.

Apart from the appropriateness of such an auction on a commercial site, the "rightness" of considering the monthly, windshield-mounted permits has generated public discussion and online debate.

Arguments for the HOV permit auction include the hidden economic and quality-of-life costs of driving on a crowded highway: Cars move more slowly, with more stops and starts, taking more time and burning more fuel. Everyone using a congested highway is already paying a price, the suppoters say. The HOV permit proposal just makes the price explicit: In return for a certain dollar amount, one can avoid the "crowd costs" and travel faster, using less gasoline and saving time.

Conducting an auction means that those people actually receiving the value will set the price they are willing to pay - it won't be set by governmental fiat. Critics say this system would clearly favor wealthier drivers, and worry that poor residents may not even have the computer access needed to enter the bidding, much less the funds to secure a permit - while the wealthy will be able to buy their way out of traffic with relative ease.

Jarrett points out that every public library has computers with Internet access. What's more, he says, a weighting mechanism based on a bidder's income can be built into the system to equalize opportunity. Besides, he says, "We might have a peak [rush hour] permit and an off-peak, day permit, for example."

Another idea is that the permit price be directly coupled to the physical size, weight, or efficiency of the vehicle. Thus, the monthly permit for a Honda Insight might cost $5, while a Humvee permit might cost $500. Or, if a four-cylinder car got a permit for $10, a permit for a six-cylinder car might be $100, and one for an eight-cylinder vehicle might be $500.

Others say permit price should be linked to a vehicle's miles-per-gallon rating or a miles-per-occupant calculation, meaning solo SUV drivers would be milked for every penny.

Voices against the permit idea have noted that every Washington State taxpayer helped pay for the HOV lanes, yet only a small percentage of those taxpayers will benefit from them. If taxes have already paid for the lanes, they argue, why should the state charge again for use of the road? Roads are public property, they say, intended for use by everyone - not a consumer good to be auctioned off to the highest bidders.

Critics also note that the proposal undermines the environmental benefits of HOV lanes and tilts the use of a public resource toward people with more money.

Finally, some critics say the proposal sets a bad precedent regarding access to critical public services. Essentially, they say the suggested HOV permits are analogous to allowing the wealthy to purchase more rapid and effective responses from the police and firefighters, producing a tiered provision of services that are supposed to be uniformly available to all.

Such challenges are shaping the formal proposals of this and other state highway revenue- generating ideas scheduled to be made final in December.

Mike Cummings, corridor planning manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation, says, "This is something we are just studying. We'll take the [results of the] study to the Washington State Transportation Commission, and if the commission wants to proceed, then we will go to the state Legislature for the authority to implement the HOV sticker plan."

Jarrett thinks that the permit proposal has a 50/50 chance of passing.

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