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JEFF JACOBY

Tolls, but no tollbooths

Q. HEY, DID YOU see the story about the guy who wants to abolish most of the tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike?

A. You mean Christy Mihos, the Turnpike Authority board member.

Q. Right. He wants to make 90 percent of the Pike -- everything from I-95 west -- toll-free. "People don't want to pay tolls," he told The Boston Globe. Another board member says the same thing: "Any idea that will give people relief from paying tolls is a good idea." That's Jordan Levy. Aren't you glad there are finally some people in government who get it?

A. Who get what? That people would rather not pay for things they use? By that logic, water and phone bills should be abolished, too.

Q. Oh, come on -- we don't pay tolls to drive on other highways. Why should the turnpike be any different?

A. The turnpike shouldn't be different -- other highways should be tolled too.

Q. You're joking!

A. No, I'm not. The problem isn't that the turnpike charges tolls. It's that other highways, the busiest ones, don't.

Q. You can't be serious. Who would ever get on a highway if they had to pay money every time they did so?

A. Well, let's see. According to the Turnpike Authority, there are nearly 200,000 toll-paying drivers who get on the Pike at least five days a week. Not only would plenty of people pay a toll to use a highway, plenty of people do so every day. Q. Yes, but nobody's going to agree to make every highway a toll road. It's bad enough that so many of them turn into parking lots twice a day. A toll would just add insult to injury.

A. No -- a toll would end that congestion. Look: We don't have enough highway capacity to meet the demand of everyone who wants to drive. Highway space has become an increasingly scarce commodity, as anyone stuck in rush hour traffic knows only too well. One way or another, drivers who want that commodity have to pay for it. The only question is whether they're going to pay with their money or with their time.

Q. But how is making drivers pay a toll going to help?

A. By giving motorists an incentive to change their driving behavior. If it's done right -- if the toll rises during rush hour and falls at other times -- it will encourage some drivers to alter their schedules and pay a lower toll or to take a different route and avoid the toll altogether. Others will decide to car-pool or use mass transit.

Q. What you're really saying is that only people with more money should have access to the highway whenever they want it.

A. No. I`m saying that people should have a choice, just as they do with everything from gasoline to ice cream to airline tickets: Spend less and get something that's simply adequate or pay a premium for something better. Either way, we all end up with a highway system that is fairer and more flexible.

Q. Aren't you forgetting something? Tolls also cause traffic tie-ups. You ever try getting through the Allston tollbooths at about 6:30 p.m.?

A. Tollbooths? This is the 21st century, man! With modern electronic toll systems -- you know, sensors along the highway that communicate with a transponder attached to the windshield -- cars don't even have to slow down, much less pause at a tollbooth. The Mass. Pike has Fast Lane, but even that is too sluggish. You should go to Toronto. They have a highway there, the 407, where tolls are automatically deducted when drivers go past an overhead span. It works like a dream -- not a tollbooth in sight, no one goes slower than 65 miles per hour, and it handles 330,000 vehicles a day! If the Canadians can get this right, we can too.

Q. But it's still not fair. Why should highway drivers have to pay tolls when they already paid the gasoline tax?

A. They shouldn't. And they don't: Turnpike drivers are already eligible for a refund of any Massachusetts fuels tax they paid for miles driven on the Pike. With monthly Fast Lane statements, it's easier than ever to document mileage, and the state rebates a few million bucks to drivers every year. It would be easy to do the same thing for drivers on I-93 or Route 128.

Q. I still don't think it would fly.

A. You're probably right -- people would rather pretend that highway driving is "free." But it isn't. Even after their construction bonds are paid off, highways involve substantial costs -- everything from repairs and snow removal to lighting and policing. As a matter of basic fairness, those who use the highways the most should pay the most for their upkeep. But instead we force people who never see a highway to subsidize those who drive them all the time. That's just wrong.

Q. So Mihos . . . ?

A. Oh, he means well, but turning the Mass. Pike into just another highway would be a step in the wrong direction. With highways as with everything else, you get what you pay for.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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