Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 26 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

If I were the Transportation Czar ... -- Traffic on Interstate 93 slows to a crawl. A 20-minute drive stretches toward its second hour. And a reverie unfolds...

Mr. President, Madame Governor, distinguished mayors and selectman, members of the Legislature, fellow drivers and passengers, ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored by your decision to make me the first transportation czar in our history and to vest in me, as the new charter specifies, "powers extraordinary, plenary, and plenipotentiary." I realize that great power entails great responsibility, and I pledge to use my new authority -- which supersedes all federal, state, and local laws and legislatures -- only for the purpose it was granted: to transform our incoherent, expensive, and frustrating transportation system into one that is logical, economical, and user-friendly.

In undertaking that transformation, I begin with one fundamental principle, as obvious as it is politically incorrect: Our transportation system must be tailored to the needs of cars and drivers.

We are a nation of drivers. For most of us most of the time, going somewhere means going by car. The newest Census data confirm it: The real mass transit in this country is the traffic on our highways. More than 76 percent of working Americans commute to work in their cars, alone. Another 11 percent share a car with one or more passengers. That means that 87 percent of Americans commute by car, against only 5 percent who take public transit. It is time to stop treating the 87 percent as if they are a disease, and to acknowledge that their interests belong at the top of our transportation agenda.

This does not meant that drivers should get anything they want. But it does mean treating them with respect. And it means recognizing that the flow of traffic on our roads is as vital to the health of our cities as is the flow of blood in our veins to the health of our bodies.

A great deal must change to make our transportation system sensible and efficient. Full details on the coming changes won't be ready for a few weeks. But I can sketch their outlines for you now.

To start with, highways will no longer be freeways. Drivers on the major arteries in our region -- Interstates 93, 95, and 495, along with Routes 128, 24, and parts of 1, are going to become toll roads, as Interstate 90, the Massachusetts Turnpike, is already. From now on, those who want the convenience and speed of highway driving will pay for them; for other drivers, secondary and local roads will remain toll-free.

Tolls will also vary with the time of day. At the height of rush hour, they will rise to $5 or $6; at the quietest times -- say, 3 a.m. -- they will be as low as 50 cents. After all, it is only fair that motorists using the highways when they are at peak demand should pay more than those willing to travel earlier or later. And to make toll-paying as easy as possible, wireless transponders will be provided to every driver. These will enable tolls to be paid electronically, with no more fumbling for coins or waiting for the tollgate to lift. The transponders will be distributed free of charge, eliminating the existing irritant of forcing motorists to pay for the right to pay.

The benefits of these changes will become apparent at once. Highway traffic will become reliably fast and hassle-free, even at the busiest hours of the day. The twice-daily parking lots that I-93 and the Turnpike Extension turn into will be no more. Commuters will have an incentive to car-pool -- the savings from sharing higher tolls -- that doesn't involve segregating an entire lane of traffic. And everyone will gain from learning to think of highway use in the same way they think of telephone service, babysitting, or air travel: as a commodity to be paid for.

The sharp increase in toll revenue will allow us to reduce gasoline taxes. We will thereby replace a hidden tax with a visible one, which is always an improvement. And we will decrease the unfairness of our current system, which compels motorists who don't use the highways to subsidize those who do.

It wouldn't be necessary for so many people to drive, of course, if taxicabs were cheaper and more plentiful. And they would be if it weren't for the crushing regulations to which we subject them. We limit the number of taxis allowed on the streets. We make the cost of cab ownership obscenely high. We determine the price that cabbies may charge. We restrict their freedom to pick up passengers -- and their freedom to decline them.

No more. I will move at once to unshackle the taxicab market. Henceforth, any qualified driver who wants a taxi license will receive one for a nominal fee, so long as his vehicle is safe and he can demonstrate his knowledge of the city's streets. The market will set taxi fares, not city government -- and cabbies will be as free as other vendors to win customers by offering lower rates. They will be permitted to pick up passengers where they find them -- city, suburb, or airport. And those who wish to serve certain neighborhoods will have every right to do so without being labeled "gypsies."

The impact of these changes will be dramatic. There will be more cabs on the street, more passengers riding them, better service, lower fares. As a result, fewer people will need to drive their cars into town, and the city's streets will become more agreeable. You see what a benevolent czar can accomplish?

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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