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Thursday, Aug 16, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Better commutes trump shared misery

Leave it to our friends on the left to decry as some sort of evil class-warfare plot a modest and obvious commuter-relief proposal that has experienced such success elsewhere, policy makers can’t wait to expand it.

We’re talking about “express” toll lanes, or, for Trotskyites preferring equal shares of misery all around, “Lexus lanes,” a jab at high-earners whom they presume will be the exclusive users of these wide-open spaces.

Of course, that was before Florida Department of Transportation planners declared buses — both HART and school — could, under prescribed circumstances, find a home on the new lanes proposed for parts of interstates 75, 275 and 4.

Thing is, the toll lane concept appears to work, or cities that already have them — including Dallas, Houston, Washington D.C. — wouldn’t be angling for expansion.

Never mind all that. We have grievance axes to grind.

The lament among the victim class in Tampa is scarcely unique. Wherever interstate toll lanes are proposed, locals proclaim the coming apocalypse. Then the expansions open and motorists start using them — some, inevitably, not exactly in the 1 percent — and, just as highway engineers project, traffic moves more efficiently. That’s traffic as in “all traffic,” including traffic comprised of thrifty motorists eschewing the toll lanes.

Consider: Even as hasty, class-baiting Washington state lawmakers and drivers move to roll back toll lanes on Interstate 405 around Seattle, department of transportation officials report morning drive times in the regular lanes dipped by 20 minutes in late October and, despite increased congestion, by as many as 10 minutes in the first two weeks of November.

It’s physics, y’all. Expand the artery, and everything moves faster. If some motorists are willing to pony up to get out of my way, so much the better. My trip is improved. What’s it to me if they pay to breeze along?

Just up the road, Atlanta has had toll lanes alongside Interstate 85 for years. It must be doing some good, because, even now, work is progressing on an ambitious, $834 million, 30-mile elevated, reversible (inbound in the morning, outbound in the afternoon) toll road alongside interstates 75 and 575, extending north from downtown. And there’s more where that came from, local officials having made plain their ambition to assign the cost of congestion to its creators.

Less extravagant but no less significant is the toll-lane strategy adopted by Charlotte, North Carolina. The city most like Tampa that our mass transportation activists like to cite has contracted to add toll lanes to interstates 77 and 485, as well as U.S. 74.

And it’s not like locals in any of these metroplexes lack for mass transit options. Washington state’s King County offers a variety of getting-around options, including three types of rail, a bus network and high-speed water taxis. Atlanta boasts Dixie’s largest commuter rail system, a streetcar network and bus rapid transit. And, of course, Charlotte has its much-admired LYNX light-rail system.

These examples rebuke those who complain that FDOT’s toll-lane proposal undercuts efforts to beef up mass conveyances in the Tampa area. In short, it’s not an either/or proposition. Interstate toll lanes can, and do, provide alternatives for travelers who reject public transportation as inconvenient or undesirable, but stick them with the cost of their choice.

But we already have toll roads. Yes, and they are well-used, putting the lie to any notion that few area motorists can afford the dent to their budgets. Holding up the Selmon and Veterans/Suncoast expressways as an argument against adding interstate toll lanes makes as much sense as rejecting steak because you already have lobster.

This isn’t to say toll lanes are an ideal solution, but ideal should not be the enemy of the useful. And equally shared misery so no one gets their feelings hurt never should be the goal of transportation engineers.

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