News: Charlotte Exclusives

On the Roads. Again.

Why does Charlotte have the worst roads you'll see this summer?

With apologies to Willie Nelson, the summer driving season is an excellent time to take stock of Charlotte’s highways and bi-ways. Driving into and around other cities makes me wonder what Charlotte ever did to miss out. I can’t help it; the topic is always on my mind.

First, all the back-slapping about winning funding to improve I-485 and other vital projects can wait. Mecklenburg is still playing catch-up to other locales.

From Richmond to Columbia, to Raleigh to Wilmington, you confront road systems much less stressed than those around Charlotte. For example, South Carolina’s Highway 31 around Myrtle Beach was a revelation during a recent trip to the coast. A six and sometimes eight-lane interstate-grade road to and from a popular destination? Why I-485 will not be that in 10 years, if ever.

Seems folks in South Carolina understood that they were leaving money on the table and worsening emissions by letting Highway 17 handled all the beach traffic and did something about it. Manifestly it must be true that the holders of political power in Raleigh, and thus the road-building money, do not value the Charlotte region as an engine of growth. The good news is that other jurisdictions are doing the heavy-lifting of pioneering ways to use something other than motor fuels taxes sent to state capitals as a source of road-building money.

In a recent issue of his authoritative surface transportation newsletter, Robert Poole notes that toll-booth-free means of charging drivers directly are becoming much cheaper to deploy. Even the supposed hurdle of drivers who lack the credit or checking account typically thought necessary for a transponder-based system to debit is coming down.

A company called TransCore now sells a $10 credit-card sized “sticker tag” that is meant to be permanently stuck to a toll-payer’s windshield. Such eGo tags have been used at a few inspection-free border crossings with Canada and Mexico for years. And recently, Poole notes, Puerto Rico has begun the first big toll-road application of eGo, much of functioning with cash transactions at gas stations.

For $20 you get the eGo sticker and $10 in tolls. After that, it is just a matter of “re-charging” the sticker with more cash, or credit for that matter, at a gas station. Through the first half of the year, 205,000 eGo tags were in use for the island’s four toll roads. That’s ten percent of all vehicles driving around with cheap, toll-paying systems built in in just a little over a year.

This has not gone unnoticed on the mainland with the Florida Turnpike Authority planning to try eGo in 2006. The idea is to get rid of toll booths on Miami area expressways. Georgia and Texas are also studying the idea.

Toll roads are not a panacea, you do need some way to limit access to them to the only those who pay the tolls, either physically or via stepped up law enforcement, as is the case with HOV lanes. But there is no reason why, given the current state of technology, that a toll-funding option should not be considered for many big state and local projects. Currently the toll option has crept onto the fringes of road-building thinking in the state, but it needs to be front and center.

Mecklenburg leaders should help drive North Carolina toward doing whatever it takes to get some of these technologies deployed as soon as possible, because the sooner the they are, the sooner the old, broken-down, Charlotte-stiffing system of road-funding can be left in a ditch where it belongs.

As Willie might say, to do otherwise would be crazy. Craaa-zy…