Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Washington's Beltway -- for which the tolls bell

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WASHINGTON -- America's newest and most controversial autobahn opened this week to screeching tires, battered bumpers, and the frantic cogitating of thousands of over-caffeinated pre-dawn drivers as they confronted the most diabolically brilliant tolling system ever devised by man.

Less than six hours after the new pay-per-mile sliver of the infamous Capital Beltway opened at two o'clock on Saturday morning, two cars already had crashed after swerving to avoid the toll lanes, several teenaged motorists were in hospital with minor injuries, and numerous other drivers had errantly entered the toll lanes and then stopped and backed up -- against three lanes of 65 mph traffic in the middle of the night -- rather than glide to the nearest exit at a cost (at that hour) of all of 65 cents.

I had to go try it, on behalf of the hordes of Florida-bound Canadians who will pass through here, hell-bent for sunshine, in the weeks to come.

It was just past six in the morning on Tuesday when my 14-year-old Honda and I rusted toward the much-despised Beltway, the 101-kilometre loop-de-loop that divides the power players of the capital from the hicks of the hinterland, whom Washington insiders define as anyone who is not obsessed about who will be the next minority whip of the ways and means committee of the House of Representatives.

"The Beltway is a very complicated and troubled place," Robert Redford said last week, referring to the gridlock in Congress and possibly the road itself.

(The rubrics "Inside the Beltway" and "Outside the Beltway" count for little when you are actually on the Beltway, which, by any standard, is one of the most clotted and maddening highways in North America. But, until last week, Washington's hundred-kilometre concrete noose at least was free of charge.)

Unlike Toronto's Express Toll Route 407, which allows drivers to bypass, at a prohibitively high cost, the overloaded Highway 401 across the top of the city, the Capital Beltway's new HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes parallel the existing road. It took only five years to build them, at a cost of only $2 billion. And they only stretch for 20 kilometres, with the usual atherosclerotic clog awaiting travellers at either end.

As I drew near to the entrance to the HOT lanes, an overhead sign informed me that my toll would be $1.10 -- and then, as I watched, it leapt to $1.20. Welcome to "dynamic pricing," whereby prices rise and fall depending on how many drivers are using the toll lanes, with the charge rising -- with no upper limit -- when the lanes are busy, to discourage others from entering. (It's free at all hours if you have three or more people in your car.)

The pricing system is deviously counter-intuitive, forcing drivers who are texting on their iPhones while listening to Carly Rae Jepsen and gulping five-hour energy drinks to perform a minutes-saved-per-dollar-spent cost/benefit analysis in a matter of milliseconds while changing lanes at freeway speed in hurricanes, hail, and sleet.

Lucky for me, then, that when I explored the HOT lanes on Tuesday morning, my antediluvian heap was the only car on the un-free section of the road!

A couple of minutes of bliss later, I was barely a dollar poorer and rolling into a Beltway equipment yard on the appropriately named Gallows Road, where I met an electrician named "John Who Wants To Stay Anonymous" who had been working on the new lanes since the late 2000s.

"There's nobody on your highway!" I gasped to the hard-hatted individual. "I felt like I could drive 120 miles an hour!"

"That's how they're going to make their money," the high-wattage worker replied. "Speeding tickets."

On the other side of Gallows, gassing up for his daily crawl, I met a man named Jeff DeMerchant, who turned out to be a senior engineer at the applied physics laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. He looked down at the Beltway and deduced that the cost-free lanes were moving speedily enough for him to eschew the toll, which went back down to $1.10 while we were talking.

"You're an engineer," I noted. "Do you understand how this dynamic pricing works? Why should a road be more expensive, the more crowded it becomes?"

"Well," DeMerchant answered, "I know that that is the algorithm, but I haven't figured out how the algorithm was developed."

"But," he went on, "it's the same question I ask myself all the time -- should I pay someone to cut my grass, or do it myself? What is my time worth?"

I called the company that is managing the HOT lanes and asked a road operations manager named Rob Kerns if he thought the new tolls might discriminate against less-affluent drivers, who would find themselves jammed and fuming in the free lanes while the BMW and Mercedes crowd zoomed past and blithely paid.

"If you go to the grocery store," Kerns said, "you pay the same price for the same loaf of bread no matter who you are. But this is based on keeping the lanes moving. The Beltway had to be improved. This way, those who can afford the improvement funded it, and the lower-income people, if you will, reap the benefits."

Indeed, when a similar dynamic-pricing system was implemented in Minnesota, only about 15 per cent of drivers surveyed said that it was a bad idea, and that percentage was almost equal across all socio-economic groups.

So it is unlikely that, even in rebel-held Virginia, we are going to see protestors barricading the HOT lanes with signs that say "Give me a free transponder or give me death!"

"Let's say that the toll lanes are completely jammed," I asked Kerns. "Are you going to raise the toll through the roof to clear the highway?"

I was starting to visualize having to pay $50 to drive 20 kilometres; a looming nightmare of the coming century, no matter where on this slam-jammed planet we live and drive.

"There is an upper limit." he replied, calming my fears. "But I'm not going to divulge it."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 A17

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