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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Pay lanes and gimmicks are bad transit policy

Nothing captures Florida's backward transportation policy like the state's plan to charge a second toll on the Veterans Expressway. A road where commuters already pay for the privilege to travel fast is now so bogged down in traffic that the state needs to offer an even more expensive route for weeding out congestion. This is the equivalent of bailing out the Titanic with a coffee cup, and the state needs to end the gimmicks and moneymaking schemes and start giving commuters modern and more affordable options.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston reported this weekend, the state will begin charging drivers an extra fee for using an express lane on the toll road. The fee will start at an additional 25 cents on top of the tolls already being charged. The price will fluctuate depending on congestion and, so far, there is no cap on how high it could go. The arrangement is the first of its kind in the nation, according to Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. That distinction reflects just how wrongheaded this approach is — and why the state needs to start investing to meet Florida's basic transportation needs.

Toll roads are useful in getting large numbers of commuters to niche locations at peak periods — such as between the suburbs and job centers during rush hours. But they are not replacements for interstates. Toll roads have a more limited use in taking through traffic off the interstates and the local road network. But Gov. Rick Scott sees toll roads as a cash cow and a means for not investing in the public interstate system. Instead of building new interstate capacity that's free for everyone, the state is looking to new toll road construction, forcing commuters to either pay more or to grapple with congestion.

Of the basic responsibilities of the state, moving people and goods ranks with education, public health, law enforcement and other essentials. Yet now the state is addressing fast growth in the Hillsborough-Pasco County corridor with supplemental tolls that are supposed to make an expressway live up to its name. When widening of the Veterans is finished in 2018, two lanes will be added in each direction; one will be an express lane, the other a general use toll lane. And this is it, the Turnpike says; there is no room to build additional lanes. The state's solution is to set aside half that capacity for higher-paying commuters and to charge enough to soften demand so the express lanes will cruise along faster than the rest.

Using what limited resources the state has to carve out a have and have-not expressway system is bad policy and bad planning. The goal should be to bring the biggest relief for all commuters, not only for those who dig the deepest. And for this strategy to work, the added toll must be high enough to keep the express lanes from becoming crowded — which means these added lanes will truly serve the wealthiest.

Monday's multicar wreck on the Howard Frankland Bridge, which snarled the beginning of the work week for thousands of area motorists, is a reminder why the state needs to move off its reliance on roads and build a modern transportation system. If such a crash happened on a new double-toll Veterans, would drivers get a refund when their express lane became an expensive parking lot?

Tolls might manage congestion on the roadways, but they do not give commuters options beyond the automobile. And making it easier for those who can afford it is not the answer. This area needs better roads, more buses and rail, and policies at the state and local levels that discourage sprawl and its costly impacts.

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