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The real cost of toll roads could be American lives
By Jim Hall
May 25, 2006
As you hit the roads this Memorial Day weekend, you might notice that you’re paying more to drive. And no, I don’t mean for gas.
All over the country, state governments are building new toll roads and privatizing existing ones. What’s the driving force? Two factors: worsening traffic congestion and the unwillingness of elected officials to raise taxes to address those transportation infrastructure problems.
Indiana recently auctioned off its Toll Road for nearly $4 billion. In the Washington, D.C., area, lawmakers are considering adding express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, which has no tolls, in hopes of reducing the gridlock that is paralyzing the loop around the city.
I have heard a lot of public debate over the effect these roads will have on the people who use them. But I have yet to hear elected officials address the very first question that should be answered: How does the movement toward toll roads affect the safety of citizens who, for economic reasons, will be forced onto secondary roads?
Lost in the joy over the prospect of shorter commutes is the plain fact that legislators are selling off their responsibility to provide for public safety. That is inexcusable, for, as Thomas Jefferson once said, the first obligation of government is to provide for the safety of the people. Common sense tells us that those who cannot afford to drive on toll roads will, in many cases, opt to travel on two-lane undivided highways, which are the most unsafe roads in the USA. In fact, less than half as many crashes causing fatality or injury occur on divided roads (a category into which toll roads fall almost by definition) as compared with undivided highways.
As states reap the profits generated by selling roads, and as private corporations recoup their billions one fare at a time, the losers are, as usual, the poor, the young, the elderly, the small-business owner, and the independent trucker. These folks will not be scooting along in the express toll roads; they will be dodging oncoming traffic and fighting to stay in their lane on the undivided and unsafe – but no-cost – highways.
I refuse to belittle the frustration and inconvenience of a bumper-to-bumper commute. If toll roads can help solve that problem, hooray, but I am afraid all we are doing in effect is moving the congestion to roads that are less safe. Not only is this bad news for drivers, it is bad news for the economy. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study showed that the cost to the U.S. economy from motor vehicle crashes in 2000 was more than $230 billion. Legislators enamored with the dollars that toll roads can provide must not forget the costs that come when more drivers are relegated to unsafe roads.
Therefore, governments that profit from toll roads – and some states take in more than $1 billion in toll road revenue each year – have an obligation to the people they serve to improve the safety of undivided highways.
Barriers to divide highways, aluminum rails to prevent drivers from running off the road, and rumble strips to alert drowsy drivers are just a few of the relatively simple improvements that could significantly improve safety.
As citizens, we cannot allow our elected officials to continue the “triple threat” in which they are engaged: ridding themselves of their responsibility to provide safe highways, raking in profits from toll roads, and doing nothing to make secondary roads safer.
Now is the time for leadership at the federal and state levels to require a percentage of toll road profits to be used to improve the safety of secondary roads. Otherwise, we will be traveling down a very dangerous road, indeed, creating two classes of safety: safe highways for drivers with money, and unsafe roads for the rest.
Jim Hall was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994-2001. He now heads Hall & Associates LLC, a safety and security consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C.