Taking a Toll on the People

Selwyn Duke
Issue CXLIX - March 21, 2008
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A sample image You’re driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95), heading toward the Big Apple. Cruising along, you pass exits 7, then 8, 9, 10 and 11, and everything is fine. Then you come to exit 12, and traffic starts to slow down; soon, it’s a New York bumper-to-bumper nightmare, the worst kind. Creeping along like an inchworm missing a few millimeters, you know that traffic will abate just down the road, just a few miles – and an hour and a half – away. You also know why:
The I-95 and George Washington Bridge (GWB) tolls.
To be fair, the delays aren’t always this severe; usually they are not. Yet, I, a man who takes the route only rarely, have been in that very situation more than I care to tell, fuming as much as my car, grumbling about the insanity of Northeastern politicians, ready to split a vein. It makes me feel like the Kingston Trio’s Charlie, the Man Who Never Returned (alas, yes, I know it’s an obscure reference).
This is why, while I’ve never been enamored of any government, I always held my region’s apparatchiks in a sort of unique contempt. I would love venturing down south because there was a certain release.  Once I escaped – and, yes, it really does feel like an escape – the bounds of northeastern road-policy cruelty, well . . . ah.  I’d just have to get beyond the $6.45 New Jersey Turnpike toll (which NJ’s “Governor” Corzine aims to raise precipitously), $3.00 Delaware Memorial Bridge toll, $4.00 Delaware Turnpike toll (35.7 cents per mile), and it was smooth sailing. Oh, I know I may be forgetting a toll, and I should also mention that on the return trip I could look forward to the $5.00 John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway toll and $6.00 GWB fleecing. 
Yet, once in the South, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Not only was the traffic less severe, but the speed limits were higher, there was no Orwellian E-ZPass, and – it’s just enough to make you want to sing “Dixie” – there were, by and large, no infernal tolls. It was a feeling of freedom.
But I knew it wouldn’t last.
Greed knows no geographical boundaries, and I’m dismayed to hear that Tennessee’s Governor Phil Bredesen signed a bill into law that will allow for the institution of tolls. And, make no mistake, once tolls gain a foothold in your state, you will never be rid of them. So, friends, Tennesseans, countrymen, lend me your ear.
While we may be divided along ideological lines, about this matter there should be no debate. Why?  Well, we may disagree on how much revenue the government should raise, but there is no doubt that tolls are absolutely the worst way of collecting it. 
                                 Tolls Cause More Damage to the Environment  
In this age of obsession about CO2 and the “Greenhouse Effect,” it’s amazing that I, a global warming skeptic, am the first commentator (as far as I know) to raise this issue. When all those millions of cars per year wait in line at toll plazas, they’re idling, spewing fumes into the air, and wasting gasoline. Now, regardless of where you stand on global warming, unless you’re the Smog Monster, I think you’ll agree with a simple proposition: Pollution is bad. Furthermore, waste is bad. Lastly, sending more greenbacks than necessary to Mideast oil sheiks is bad. Are we in agreement thus far?
OK, then a simple corollary presents itself: Raising revenue through tolls is self-destructive and quite stupid.
Thus, I have a challenge for toll-advocating politicians. So many of you, such as NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, and Governor Corzine, will happily pontificate about the perils of global warming, about how citizens have to sacrifice to reduce their carbon footprint (I know where I’d like to put a carbon footprint). I want you to put your money – and, really, it’s our money – where your mouth is. Eliminating tolls will greatly mitigate all the problems you pay lip service to, while making the people’s lives easier. C’mon, you talk the talk about the importance of sacrificing for the good of Mother Earth and posterity.
When are you going to start?
And, speaking of hypocrisy, I note that politicians often make a great show of their desire to reduce traffic congestion. Why, Mayor Bloomberg proposed charging drivers a “congestion fee” of $8 for cars and $21 for trucks to enter parts of Manhattan during part of the day. But why are traffic-reducing plans that would fleece the people enthusiastically proposed, while those that would not do so don’t even seem to occur to these paragons of administration? I bet even your average New York Times journalist could answer that one.  
And eliminating the congestion caused by tolls yields other benefits, too. Waiting on highways causes lost productivity and impacts on family life, as people could be spending that time at work or home; it increases wear on vehicles, leading to greater repair costs; and it causes stress, which can induce a variety of disorders and ailments.
Then, I have a warning. There is one great exception to the rule that it’s easier to destroy than create: Big government programs and revenue measures. This is true even when they have a sunset clause. While few remember this today, when toll roads and bridges were built about 50 years ago, the agreement was that tolls would only be in place until the government recouped the cost of the infrastructure’s construction. It was another broken promise by a broken government. 
Thus, once tolls are institutionalized, it’s likely you will never, ever turn back the clock. In fact, the opposite happens; as incompetent politicians realize that tolls can be used to balance mismanaged budgets, they are raised inexorably. Case in point: While the Triboro Bridge (NYC) toll was 25 cents through the 1960s, it will be $5 each way as of March 16, 2008. Then, I’ll hark back to my little NJ to NYC trip, the one that takes me over the GWB. Just to ensure that I fully appreciate the privilege of sitting on their hallowed highway for longer than I deserve, the politicians charge me a combined rate of more than $9.00. Well, at least it reminds me of how much I love government.
But there are solutions. First, any politician proposing a toll should be hanged. If your state’s laws are so backward as to prohibit such remedial action, however, such a public official should be impeached; if even this proves impossible, your only recourse of voting him out of office should be exercised.
Speaking of elections, here is an idea for an enterprising politician. Run for governor on a very simple platform:
A promise to eliminate all tolls.
That’s it. Nothing more.
I can see it now: Campaign commercials showing bumper-to-bumper traffic, road rage, and smog. Just play up the pollution angle; it’ll work like a charm. It’s both populist and politically correct; it’s where the Machiavellian meets the moral. It’s a winner. 
And don’t forget your campaign slogan.
Get the trolls out of the statehouse and the tolls off the bridges. 

Selwyn Duke lives in Westchester County, New York. He is a tennis professional, internet entrepreneur, and writer, whose works have appeared on various sites on the Internet, including Intellectual Conservative and Mensnet. A large number of his works can be found at his site, www.SelwynDuke.com. Mr. Duke can be contacted at sd@selwynduke.com.

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