9.5.05

SHIFTING THE PEAK. In Minnesota, a transponder system to permit people to use the car-pool lanes for a fee that varies with the load is coming.

Starting next week, the state plans to do just that. The HOV lanes will become HOT lanes — for high-occupancy toll. Solo drivers on an 11-mile portion of I-394 will be able to drive in “MnPass” lanes formerly reserved for car pools, as long as they're willing to pay electronic tolls that vary dramatically depending on traffic volume.

When traffic is light, the toll might be 25 cents. When traffic's at a standstill, the toll could hit $8. The tolls will vary up to 20 times an hour depending on traffic. Car-poolers, motorcycles and buses can still use the lanes for free.

The article provides little information on how the highway authority will enforce the pricing. Presumably there are occupancy cameras on this stretch of road. It's a bit more complicated than line-jumping privileges at the roller coaster. But let's keep congestion pricing distinct from incremental cost pricing, which the article misses.

•The federal gas tax, which pays for upgrades to the nation's aging freeway system, is inadequate. The tax, set at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, is not tied to inflation, and Congress is reluctant to raise it. “Our current system of fixing roads is really breaking down,” says Kenneth Orski, publisher of the newsletter Innovation Briefs, which reports on roads and transit and supports HOT lanes. “The gas tax is not working.”

•The federal gas tax is levied per gallon, and automobile engines are getting more miles to the gallon. That means vehicles are wearing down highways faster than money is being generated to repair or replace them. Converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes raises money, and it's less expensive and more efficient than building new lanes.

That's an inadequate discussion of the highway-funding problem. The national excise taxes on gasoline and on tires are supposed to be used for road improvements, but the so-called Highway Trust Fund has been in surplus for a number of years while Congress and the President engage in discretionary spending and deficit-reduction fiddles made possible by the fungibility of money. Furthermore, it's not those lighter cars that are breaking the roads. The most obnoxious of passenger trucks doesn't come close to inflicting the wear an empty 53 foot trailer with tractor does. (If I really wanted to ask a nasty public choice question -- it is exam week -- it might involve evaluating the efficiency and equity consequences of subsidized trucking and Wal-Mart's productivity-enhancing strategy of running some trucks with less than a full load.)

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