McCULLOUGH: HOT lanes an unreasonable idea

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

The more I hear about this HOT lane idea, the worse it sounds.

The idea of variable pricing — making people pay more to move faster at peak travel times — has been pitched to us in the guise of giving us more choices and thus more personal liberty. I contend there is no choice if you don’t happen to have a lot of money in the bank.

As many of you already know, High-Occupancy Toll lanes have a nickname: Lexus lanes, meaning only people who can afford a luxury car can afford to pay more to drive faster on roads everyone else in their jalopies already paid for with gasoline taxes. But is there any truth to the nickname? It depends on where you seek your answer.

The Reason Foundation lays claim to creating the concept of HOT lanes in 1993. It says the idea was later endorsed by the federal government and that variable pricing became a priority of President Bush’s budget in 2007, with the feds offering grants to states (like Georgia) which implement it. (Go to http://reason.org/news/show/1002865.html to download the foundation’s HOT Lanes: Frequently Asked Questions document.)

Now what else do we know about the Reason Foundation? Let’s read the introduction to its mission statement:

Reason Foundation’s mission is to advance a free society by developing, applying and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets and the rule of law. We use journalism and public policy research to influence the frameworks and actions of policymakers, journalists and opinion leaders.

Note that last phrase. That influence is widespread. The FAQ on Virginia’s HOT lane project takes some of its answers verbatim from Reason. So does the federal government, which does a masterful job of spinning its answer to the Lexus lane question on the Federal Highway Administration website:

While the data indicate the proportions of commuters who choose the Express Lanes increase with income, commuters of all income levels use the lanes. High income individuals (those with annual incomes greater than $100,000) utilize the toll lanes at greater rates than lower income individuals, but lower and moderate income individuals also make substantial use of the toll lanes. Although roughly one-quarter of the motorists in the toll lanes at any given time are in the top income bracket, data demonstrate that the majority are low and middle-income motorists.

That’s Orwellian doublethink at its best, simultaneously telling me that use goes up with income, but that most users are middle and low income.

When you look at the cited chart, the largest chunk is for drivers at between $60,000 and $100,000, and putting that slice together with the quarter in the $100,000 and up bracket, you end up with well over 50 percent of users starting at 60 grand when the average American household income is around $50,000.

Your alternative is to carpool, but you’re going to need three people instead of two. Quick, name two other people who live near you, who work the exact same hours in nearly the same location, who don’t need their car during the day and who you get along with well enough to share a ride five days a week. OK, I understand — you need to think about that one awhile.

The FHA website’s answer is part of a much larger manifesto on how to convince politicians, journalists and citizens to swallow the HOT lane projects, magically turning every concern a person could ever have into some sort of benefit.

You want to know who this benefits? The government, via a new revenue stream, private contractors that supply the equipment and people who can afford up to $14.40 a day to drive in the lanes. (That’s about $3,700 a year.)

Offering a choice and then pricing most people out of it while simultaneously telling them its in their best interest is elitist and arrogant. But hey, look at the bright side: The Reason Foundation’s annual highway study, which was released Thursday, analyzes state road systems on a cost-benefit basis, and Georgia ranked ninth-best this year.

I’m guessing once the roads start producing more revenue for a few people we’ll be moving up.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.