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View from around the state: Yes to toll lanes

“What’s wrong with a premium charge for a premium ride?” That was the question Phil Evenson asked in 2008 as he was leaving his post as executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. And it is essentially the same question gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker asked when he proposed charging a fee to drive in less-congested freeway lanes.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with it as long as the money collected is used wisely. Such a system is used in some other states and could be used in Wisconsin to help ease the pressure on the state’s transportation fund and provide some needed money for mass transit.

Evenson suggested it two years ago as a way to supplement the gasoline tax, which is probably not sustainable as a way to fund transportation projects, especially as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

Walker has suggested it in this campaign, although he insists the fee won’t create toll roads in the sense of an Illinois-type system. He says the pay-only express lanes would be new lanes and that drivers would always have the option of riding for free in other lanes.

Minnesota is one of the states with high-occupancy toll lanes. In the Twin Cities, those who car-pool can use the lanes for free. Individual drivers can use them if they pay a fee that varies based on congestion. The fees for each corridor range from 50 cents to $8, Nick Thompson, program manager for Minnesota’s MnPASS system, told the Journal Sentinel.

He said the system, which started five years ago, has proved popular. Traffic in the express lanes travels at 50 mph or faster 98 percent of the time, while other lanes have stop-and-go traffic during peak times.

The fees raised about $2 million last year; the system costs about $1.7 million to operate. The excess revenue is expected to increase as more lanes are added to the system. And here’s another good idea: the revenue goes to mass transit.

That’s something Wisconsin legislators should consider, too. Mass transit systems in southeastern Wisconsin face dire financial challenges; the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line appears to be on life support.

Finding reliable sources of funding for transit — buses and rail — is essential. Charging for that premium ride could be just the thing.

The Legislature should be sure to take up the issue when it reconvenes.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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