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The Mayor Hates Tolls, But Here's Why He Shouldn't



Tolls and taxes, everyone hates them. Last week Mayor Dwight Jones dismissed the idea of taking over the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway — once the debt is paid, the toll roads are slated to become city property. He also pooh-poohed the possibility of leasing the expressway system to private investors or taking up toll collecting. It’s complicated, sure. But are tolls really that bad? Here’s why the expressway system works better with tolls:

1. Tolls are the fairest form of taxation.

Unlike most taxes, they’re strictly user fees. You pay only if you use the road. Considering the General Assembly is overrun with anti-tax zealots — forget about raising the gas tax — it’s unlikely that future highways and interstates will be built without tolls.

Tolls are coming back in vogue, says George Hoffer, an economics professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in transportation issues. Why? Technology. “The gasoline tax is a model-T as far as collecting highway revenues,” Hoffer says. Using electronic transponders like the EZ-Pass system also allows officials to easily adjust toll rates during peak and off-peak times. Tolls could be lowered on weekends, when traffic volume is light, to encourage more use. Those suburbanites planning their Saturday night reservations just might reconsider dining in the city.

2. Pocahontas Parkway was a mistake.

Critics point to that $3-per-car superhighway in the sky, which starts in Chesterfield County and crosses Interstate 95 with a 150-foot overpass into Henrico County, as evidence of what will happen if the city sells the expressway system.

It’s fear-mongering. The parkway was the first road built using the Public Private Transportation Act. Tolls are $3 because there’s no traffic, and for most drivers the road offers very little convenience or time savings. The state nearly defaulted on the bonds used to build the road in 2004, so it was sold to an Australian company for $324 million.

The city’s expressway system has no such problems. If sold, the city or the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which owns and operates the city toll road, could negotiate a much more modest toll-pricing agreement with private investors. It’s simple supply and demand: If tolls suddenly rose to $3, traffic counts would diminish on the expressway overnight. That would be bad business.

3. Chesterfielders will continue to pay.

The mayor’s concerned about a revolt in Chesterfield if the city took over the tolls. But the county would have benefited from a deal in 2004 to sell the expressway system, and the Powhite Parkway extension, which is owned by the state, for $586 million. Why? Because the private construction firms proposing the deal were going to use the tolls to fund another Powhite extension, which the county desperately wanted. That extension is still in the county’s plans — it would extend Powhite, which ends near Brandermill, another nine miles to Hull Street Road.

While that deal was rejected, the notion that Chesterfielders would hold a grudge against the city for taking over the tolls may be outdated. The good old boys long have disliked the city because of the expressway tolls, but they don’t run the county anymore.

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