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Originally published Monday, October 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

The freeways aren't free

We might have expected it. The energy price spikes triggered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita prompted state legislators in a dozen or more...

We might have expected it. The energy price spikes triggered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita prompted state legislators in a dozen or more states to propose drastic (albeit temporary) gasoline-tax suspensions.

Heaven forbid, it would seem, that the legislators' constituents should have to face the consequences of buying SUVs and other gas-guzzling heavy vehicles. Or the perils of choosing homes in distant suburbs with long, long commutes. Or the consequences of ignoring years of warnings about the nation's vulnerability to global energy cutoffs.

No, it seems our politicos believe we need price coddling. For years they've refused to raise gas taxes nearly fast enough to maintain reasonable spending power to keep road systems in shape. Somehow we still believe "freeways" are truly "free."

Fortuitously, most state legislatures weren't in session the past month or two, so the tax holidays were generally just talk. But not in Georgia, where a special session was called, and the House rushed 164-6, the Senate 49-2, to ratify Gov. Sonny Perdue's moratorium on the state gasoline tax.

Were the legislators considerate, spendthrift or spineless? Take your choice. The fact is, gas taxes exist for a reason: to pay for roads the public wants and expects. When gas taxes are cut, or lag in the face of inflation, it's not just roads that may suffer — schools, universities, medical programs and many more programs are potential losers. Already, by one analysis, roadway demands are gobbling up so much of our public revenue stream that gas taxes only cover 35 percent of the burden.

State Rep. Nan Grogan Orrock of Atlanta, one of the few Georgia dissenters, appropriately questioned a gas-tax moratorium at the precise point of added state outlays to assist Katrina refugees. "Bogus tax cuts," she said, simply "further weaken government's ability to do its job."

Plus, there's a deepening long-term dilemma. Even before Katrina and Rita, gasoline prices had risen about 20 percent in a year. Result: Some Americans began to drive less, sensibly cutting back on errands, starting to use transit or telecommute more often, buying hybrid cars, or making a really radical change — walking or bicycling to work.

But less driving does mean lower gas-tax yields, and therefore fewer dollars to maintain or build roads.

So, inevitably, more attention is turning to HOT (high-occupancy/toll) lanes, especially around the nation's heavily congested major metro areas. Generally cost-free to car-poolers, HOT lanes are accessible to any driver who opts to pay the extra cost for avoiding traffic hold-ups.

Two HOT systems have worked well in California's Orange and San Diego counties since the 1990s; now they're coming on rapidly with systems up in Houston and Minneapolis and in review or construction in Colorado, Washington state, Georgia and Northern Virginia.

Promoted intensely to policymakers by national transportation experts Robert Poole and Kenneth Orski, HOT systems do create a fresh revenue stream for hard-pressed governments. Plus, with newly developed "smart" tolling technologies, drivers with responders in their vehicles are charged precisely where and at what hours they use a toll road.

Poole recommends reserving a part of a HOT lane's capacity for public buses, controlling for fast flow by variable pricing of rides for private cars and trucks. That way, he says, the new roadway serves many more people than a conventional busway. He and Orski favor banishing carpools (i.e., any non-paying private cars) from HOT lanes — a way, it's claimed, to crack down on sometimes staggering numbers of solo drivers who cheat by using high-occupancy lanes.

Indeed, unless carpools pay, the fiscal viability of new HOT lanes may come into question. The proposed HOT lanes on Northern Virginia's crowded Interstates 95 and 395 are a case in point. Ronald Kirby, the respected transportation director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, estimates tolls at some rush-hour choke points would have to be as much as $1.60 a mile. A round-trip rush-hour commute into Washington from outlying Prince William County could cost an attention-getting $40.

But is a "tolled" highway system truly the answer for our future? Can it pass the political hurdles? Even if it does, is our present degree of dependency on the automobile sustainable? Those are the questions very few of us — politico or plain citizen — seem ready to answer.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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