Tolls on the expressway? Get real

Posted: June 22, 2007

People complain about the wattage of their elected leaders in Harrisburg, but this week, a few legislators came up with a bright new idea for the Schuylkill Expressway: tolls.

That may sound like a bad plan for a highway so congested that rush-hour traffic moves at a creep, at times speeding up to a crawl.

And it's true that an I-76 toll is just the dream of some ticked-off rural lawmakers. In response to proposals that would turn I-80 across northern Pennsylvania into a toll road, to raise money for SEPTA and other transportation projects, they suggested charging drivers of highways in this corner of Pennsylvania, including the Schuylkill.

"Proof there's a lot of alcoholics in this state," said sports-radio talker "Big Daddy" Graham, a Philly native.

But we're completely in favor. Not of the drinking. Of the tolls. The installation of toll booths should pretty well stop traffic completely, turning the Schuylkill into a 21-mile-long parking lot. And that, friends, represents untold economic opportunity.

Entrepreneurs could feast on a captive audience composed of the drivers and passengers inside as many as 190,000 cars a day.

Rita's Water Ice is looking to expand. A franchisee could rent the westbound breakdown lane and sell to motorists broiling in the summer heat - a whole new take on window service. High schools could hold car washes in the middle of the expressway and never run out of customers.

The installation of toll booths would surely boost newspaper circulation - believe me, we'd appreciate it - because bootjacks could stroll the lanes, hawking copies to drivers desperate for something to read.

It would be good for the vendors, too. Every day, a nice, healthy walk from South Philadelphia to Valley Forge.

Gentlemen's clubs could offer lap dances to traffic-bound guys, giving new meaning to the Conshohocken curve.

The clubs should provide a discount, seeing as how the patrons are bringing their own seats.

Despite how often the Lord's name is invoked on the Schuylkill, opportunities for religious practice may be limited.

Ken Klein of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia in Upper Darby says the repetition of sacred mantras requires deep concentration and visualization - of a deity, perhaps, or a flame. Not the best idea in traffic.

But even Klein, a peaceful Buddhist, will tell you, "There's no way in hell a toll will work on the Schuylkill."

For investors, we have three words: the Trucker's Friend. You know, with the hose leading to a big plastic jug. It will be mandatory gear for the hours-long journey into Center City. For the ladies, the official Lisa Nowak NASA diaper.

For years, Overdrive magazine rated Pennsylvania as having the worst roads in the country. Not anymore. Now we're second-worst. Behind Louisiana. (Where's Mississippi when you need it?) If fewer cars actually moved over the Schuylkill, maybe it would stay in better shape.

This talk of tolls is, so far, just that: talk. Could it really happen? And what would it do to the expressway?

"I don't know," said Charles Metzger, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. "It's not a thought we've ever had."

Most suggestions, he said, are about making the highway bigger to handle the traffic. People have suggested adding lanes or building an elevated second highway.

But when it comes to widening the Schuylkill, engineers are between a rock and a wet place.

"We got a mountain on one side and the river on the other," Metzger said. "There's not much we can do."

Of course, putting tolls on an interstate would require approval by the Federal Highway Administration. And a recent poll conducted for Pennsylvania Construction Industries found that state residents were opposed, 54 percent to 42 percent, to charging fees. There was less opposition if drivers making short hops got to travel toll-free.

Officials could push the favorable rating higher: On the first day of the tolls, every driver could get free lemon water ice and a pretzel stick.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article.

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