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Environmental Group Says Toll Highways Okay

We take a break from bad commuter week to share an interesting development in the transportation world. The advocacy group Environmental Defense has come out in favor of using public-private partnerships to build tolled highways. Their support, as you might imagine, came with a couple caveats. They prefer tolls to be added to existing lanes with minimal widenings and for some of the revenue to be used to fund public transit and to protect the environment.

If highways are done in this way, Environmental Defense sees winners all around. Taxpayers don't have to pay for most of the fixes, drivers gain more capacity and more assurance, transit options are increased and the environment is protected.

In the real world this means that they do not think that the intercounty connector is a good idea because it is a brand new highway that brings with it a number of environmental concerns. It's also seen as a catalyst for more suburban sprawl. But they do support Maryland's approach to widening the Beltway, which could include adding a tolled lane and converting an exisiting lane into a tolled one.

The tolls that they like, which most everyone likes these days, are variable ones that rise and fall according to traffic levels. So tolls would peak during rush hour and fall at other times of day. The idea is that highway officials can control how many people use the lanes and, therefore, they can manage congestion. Conceivably, the lanes would never clog because the tolls would just rise and rise until people stopped using them.

"Toll traffic managed lanes can carry twice as many vehicles as regular lanes," said Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense, during a conference call Tuesday. "We should upgrade existing lanes to toll managed lanes rather than just widening roads and creating future highways. If it's only new lanes and only new roads it tends to exacerbate the problems."

What's intriguing about this development is that it's unusual for any environmental group to back anything that encourages driving, which is seen as a primary cause of pollution. But Replogle said Tuesday that a growing number of environmentalists are becoming more comfortable with some of these types of deals.

What do you guys think? Is this a sellout, practical approach to planning or something else?

You can learn more about Environmental Defense here and you can find a report about the issue here.

By Washington Post Editors  |  June 7, 2006; 11:15 AM ET
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