Wave of the future for highway expansion

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

Anyone who has driven the Capital Beltway with any regularity knows how it can jam at all hours and for no apparent reason. Expansion of the beltway, particularly in Virginia, was sorely needed but unaffordable until private interests stepped in. On Saturday, after a decade of planning, design and construction, the 14-mile Express Lanes project will take on its first traffic.

hotlanesIn an era in which Congress and state legislatures refuse to bite the bullet and raise the revenues needed to maintain and upgrade our highways, this project is an exemplar of things to come. According to this excellent Associated Press report, the Express Lanes project was financed with 80 percent private money. And the private developers will have the right to collect tolls as a repayment of their investment.

Any serious expansion of highway capacity is beyond government's means as transportation programs suffer from dwindling gas tax revenues. The federal tax hasn't been raised since 1993; Pennsylvania's not since 1997; and the taxes are non-inflationary. Unlike sales and income taxes, they don't produce more revenue as prices go up. States are struggling just to maintain what they have with declining resources.

So you want a new or bigger highway? Hope that private investors will build it and toll it.

The Virginia Express Lanes will have variable tolls -- the heavier the volume, the higher the price. It's a system designed to keep traffic moving on the Express Lanes using good-old supply and demand principles. When things start jamming, a $6 toll for 14 miles of driving will discourage enough people from entering the Express Lanes to thin out the demand.

Pennsylvania this year enacted a law allowing public-private partnerships like the one in Virginia. Whether that will provide answers to the region's traffic problems, like the daily jams on the Parkway West and Parkway East, remains to be seen. Next time you drive Route 28, get a good look at the massive construction going on there -- other than Pennsylvania Turnpike projects, it's the last significant capacity-adding highway project we're likely to see in these parts for many years.

Photo: Associated Press

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