Coming: Toll roads that cost more on critical trips

Depending on where you live, you may have paid to drive on a toll road.

Toll roads have been modernized in recent years to cause fewer traffic jams while encouraging drivers to sign up for the wireless automated payment systems they support. Instead of a toll gate that requires drivers to stop and pay with cash, multiple lanes have sensors that read an in-car device’s wireless signal that identifies your car.

That device is tied to a credit card or bank account so that the tolls are collected without stopping or worrying about having the right change. Because you didn’t have to stop to pay, the likelihood of traffic jams at toll booths is sharply reduced and makes your trip faster.

Increasing costs associated with maintaining roads have prompted toll road managers to look for ways to increase revenue on their roads. Toll roads have always charged more for vehicles with more axles. The idea there was that more axles meant more vehicle weight, which wears down the road more quickly. This formula for variable tolls has been accepted by those driving commercial trucks for some time.

So how do toll road managers find a way to get more revenue from the same traffic, but without raising tolls for everyone?

One of the ideas they’ve come up with focuses on eliminating traffic neutrality.

What is Traffic Neutrality?

Traffic neutrality is the idea that all vehicles of the same type pay the same toll. Whether you drive by yourself in a rusted out 1962 Ford Fairlane or you drive a $92,000 2014 Mercedes S550 full of Fortune 50 CEOs, the toll is the same.

Tolls for commercial vehicles work similarly, so if you drive a beat up three axle commercial dump truck carrying grass clippings, you pay the same as the driver of a brand new three axle dump truck carrying nuclear waste.

In other words, the toll is the same and the cost applied without conditions across traffic when you look at vehicles of the same type.

That’s traffic neutrality.

A new idea for raising toll road revenue

A change you might be seeing soon removes this neutrality and allows the in-car device to add additional charges to the toll based on where you are going and how important the trip is to you and your family or business.

For example, if you’re racing your wife to the hospital so she can deliver a baby, or someone is driving you to the doctor due to the allergic reaction to a bee sting, this would be sensed as an important trip and thus, the toll would be higher.

Another revenue idea is full speed lanes. Motorists on important trips pay more to drive in lanes free of interference from speed-control vehicles. Speed control vehicles drive slowly to moderate speeds in lanes not designed for “full speed limit service”.

Speed’s easy to manage since a road’s speed limit is regulated by law. However, the speed collectively driven above a toll road’s minimum speed limit is not. In order to manage these slower speeds, toll road managers pay frequent drivers a stipend to drive 10 or 15 mph below the speed limit.

Drivers are paid based on a device that monitors the car’s speed while on the toll road. If you meet your commitment, you get full pay.

These cars pull the average speed down for lanes that have not qualified for “full speed limit road access”, while not violating the law since those speed controlling cars drive at speeds above the road’s minimum speed.

Traffic volume plays into this as well. As the number of cars paying to drive at full speed increases, the demand for fast lanes increases.

When a new lane is needed, a non-full speed lane is converted to full speed and all remaining cars are funneled into the remaining non-full speed lanes. This increases traffic on the slower lanes and motivates more people to buy into full speed limit service on the toll road.

What’s this really about?

For now, this annoying toll road story is made up.  However, it describes exactly how the Federal Communications Commission is conspiring with large internet services and content providers to control internet traffic and destroy “net neutrality”, the real world internet version of traffic neutrality.

If this sounds like an idea that will hurt your business, call your Senators and Representatives and ask them to preserve net neutrality.