Charging Up the Freeway

As traffic jams on the nation's freeways grow ever more lengthy and frequent, the prospect of charging a fee to help unclog some lanes looks appealing.

The number of cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles on US roads went up nearly 20 percent between 1992 and 2002 - 10 times the rate in road expansion, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Further, taxes aren't footing the total bill to build enough new roads to match demand, or even to adequately repair existing roads.

Though many state and private toll roads exist nationwide, Congress has been reluctant to allow states to build or convert to toll lanes on highways paid for with federal dollars.

But a recent proposal to do just that is part of the Senate's version of the giant transportation bill now being negotiated with the House. It makes sense, especially in and around major cities, to have some lanes for which drivers can choose to pay for access.

Technology now exists to scan vehicles without slowing them down. And the money generated would supplement transportation costs now funded by the federal gas tax.

Some critics call such toll lanes "Lexus lanes" - thinking that only the wealthy would want to pay to keep their wheels rolling closer to the speed limit. But studies have shown that folks of various income levels would be willing to pony up.

While mass transit remains the most realistic long-term approach to alleviating crowded highways, Congress and the Bush administration would be wise to settle on a final bill that gives states greater flexibility to charge for at least some toll lanes on freeways funded with federal dollars. And who knows? With frustration levels down, aggressive driving just might be reduced.

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