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Tolling Points

‘Life Is Worth More Than $10 an Hour’: Dr. Gridlock Tells the Story

Bill Cramer

In his November 9 column, Washington Post reporter Robert Thomson came up with the ultimate winning narrative for congestion management projects like Virginia’s 495 Express Lanes.

Thomson, a.k.a. Dr. Gridlock, produced a first-year review of the 495 project, where average weekday trips have increased nearly 43% since the beginning of the year. In one sentence, attributed to a satisfied commuter from Manassas, VA, he captured the arguments for congestion relief and driver choice at the heart of the call for a more permissive approach to tolling the Interstate highway system.

“My life is worth more than $10 an hour to me,” said Adam Epling, whose 46-mile daily commute from Manassas to Tysons Corner was reduced from 90 minutes in each direction to 45 minutes in summer, an hour the rest of the year. The cost? About $5.10 per ride.

“They’re selling time,” Thomson said of Transurban, the toll road operator. “And he’s buying.”

It’s Not Gouging

Thomson had an instructive response for highway users who see tolling as a form of price gouging.

“While the tolls may look high to drivers in a region unaccustomed to paying tolls, this doesn’t meet the common definition of ‘gouging,’” he wrote. “For that to apply, a customer must have no choice but to pay an artificially inflated rate for a product.

“On the Beltway, a driver who thinks the trip isn’t worth the toll takes the free lanes.”

‘A Future Hall of Famer’

IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones, long known for the evocative metaphors with which he makes the case for tolling, put the 495 Express Lanes’ first year of operation in perspective.

The project is “a future hall of famer in its rookie season,” he said. In the course of an hour-long interview with Thomson last week, he added that toll roads, like the most memorable sports stars, are in for the long haul: Impressive as they might be when they first break into the big leagues, they continue to improve as they gain experience, put on muscle mass, and settle into the trajectory of a 15- or 20-year baseball career (or a 30, 40-, or 60-year concession contract).

Decades ago, a columnist describing baseball legend Willie Mays commented that the Say Hey Kid was no longer fast enough to run out from under his cap, so that he now played center field with savvy, not speed. The tolling industry brings together the best of both.

We offer the deep perspective and experience of the original state turnpikes, combined with the emerging business models introduced by many of the newer tolling agencies.

That mix of expertise reflects the vibrancy of an industry with a constant drive to innovate. And it points to a level of flexibility that should be particularly helpful to Congress in the next year, as work begins on the 2014 highway reauthorization bill.

photo credit: Danielle Scott via photopin cc


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