I hope a toll never has me down as a 350-lb woman from Alberta, Can. It might cost me an extra 50 cents.
If urban expert Owen Gutfreund has his way, the toll plazas of the future just might break down everyone according to size, make, model and color. In his op-ed piece that appeared in The New York Times in April, Gutfreund tugged at the ear of transportation planners everywhere with his call to adjust tolls to take into account the vehicle’s cost and fuel efficiency and the wear and tear on roads that different cars cause.
Verbally dressing himself up as the Robin Hood serving all of transportation, Gutfreund popped higher tolls and fees as being a greater burden on drivers with lower incomes. Stealing from London’s Ken Livingstone, who came up with the idea of tripling toll charges for SUVs entering the metropolis’s downtown district, Gutfreund suggests requiring that “vehicle registrations include designation in tiered classes, taking into account weight, sales prices, emission rating and gas-mileage efficiency. Tolls would be levied according to these classes. Smaller, cheaper and more environmentally friendly cars would pay less, while drivers of more expensive, wasteful and higher-polluting cars would pay more.”
The professor of history and urban studies sharpens the tip of his argument with a solid block of logic: If we are already charging trucks and other multiaxle vehicles more to pass through toll plazas, why not do the same with regular vehicles?
I have often used this page as a paper megaphone belting out the call for innovative funding for our transportation infrastructure needs. However, I believe the idea spilling out from Gutfreund is just a tad tainted.
First of all, I believe those who prance around in their SUVs and other loaded vehicles already pay more to use the road, thanks to the putrid 10 miles to the gallon most carry. More fill-ups equals more money inserted for transportation.
I’m also wrestling with the crowning of these world champions at the pump. Even though part of me is part of them—one of my cars is a green Toyota Camry—the same rule above applies here—since they fill up far fewer times they are, in essence, receiving a road rebate.
But what is really sucking oxygen from Gutfreund’s argument is the absence of the universal chip that would be needed to store and decipher all this data. Those in the intelligent transportation systems environment have been wild about the opportunity for open-road tolling for a few years now. U.S. automakers, however, have stalled forward momentum like the battery in a 1979 Ford Pinto. Their vehicle collision avoidance systems work just fine, when talking with makes and models of the same family. Anything off of that tree speaks with a foreign tongue.
The reality of tolls is that states are going to drop the gate arms wherever they can fit them, and congestion pricing, which requires just one flip of a switch or a few taps in a keyboard, will reign supreme. It seems only logical to rate motorists according to time of day, not by the kind of statistics that can divide people by DNA type. Gutfreund’s approach to profiling is only inviting the winds of chaos. I also believe the ever-escalating cost of gasoline will lead these road dinosaurs to extinction. When those numbers dry up, where will the industry be pulling the extra toll revenue?
So what’s next in this bright room of ideas? A gas-tax break coming from a 150-lb 71-year-old politician from Arizona?