Fitzsimon File

Two roads dividing North Carolina

North Carolina’s highway system will be changing soon from one where we all pay gas taxes to build and maintain all the roads in the state to one where folks with more money can drive on better roads and get to work faster or make it to their beach house earlier on Friday afternoon.

The state’s first toll road will open December when drivers will have to pay extra to use the first section of the Triangle Expressway.

When the expressway is finished, you can use it to get from Interstate 40 to Holly Springs just outside Raleigh for $2.72 if you buy a special transponder and set up a debit account. It will be $4.15 per trip if you just use the road and wait for the bill to come in the mail.

Even for the transponder users, that’s more than five dollars a day if you use the expressway for your commute to work. And those are just the prices for now. They will go up in future years.

For people using only part of the expressway, they will pay 14.5 cents a mile if they have a transponder and 22.2 cents a mile if they wait for the bill. If you are ten miles from work, it will cost you at least another $60 a month just to make it to your job.

You don’t have to take the toll road of course. You can take the slower, longer way if you can’t find another $720 in your annual budget.

And the two-tiered transportation system is not just happening in the Triangle.

The N.C. Turnpike Authority is now building a toll road in Union County for people who are willing to pay more to bypass Monroe and not sit in traffic on Highway 74, a popular route to the beaches from Charlotte.

That project was on hold until a federal judge this week rejected a lawsuit alleging the state had not properly considered the environmental impact of the highway.

The Turnpike Authority is authorized to go ahead with as many as nine toll roads in all and the state has applied for a federal program that will allow tolls on Interstate 95 too, so there’s a good chance tolls roads are coming your way.

For now the Turnpike Authority has a list of criteria it must use when starting toll road projects, including the availability of a free, alternate route, the one the poor people can use.

One Triangle commuter told the News & Observer that she was happy to the pay the tolls because she will get home from work quicker and be able to spend more time with her family. The folks who can’t afford the tolls won’t enjoy that extra time at home.

That doesn’t seem to bother David Joyner, the head of the turnpike authority, who compared tolls to the emergence of cable television when people were used to watching television for free.

The difference of course, is that you can choose to pay for cable but the state transportation system is supposed to work well for everybody, not just people who can pay extra for a little special treatment.

And once the toll roads are established, the calls to turn them over to private companies to manage are coming next. And does anyone expect that the requirement for a free alternate route will last once the tolls start rolling and wealthy communities want their own roads?

Not to mention that the tolls will make it less likely there will be a public debate about whether we should continue to keep trying to pave our way out of our traffic problems or consider more investments in public transit and smarter planning.

Then there is general philosophy of paying only for what you use. Should people without children pay less in taxes because they are not “using” the public schools? Should high admission fees be charged at state parks so only the people visiting them should pay for their upkeep?

It is the same argument made to justify massive increases in tuition at the University of North Carolina, that students should pay the cost of the education they receive, not rely on the state to pick up a large portion of the cost.

The ultimate goal is to sharply reduce taxes and eventually reduce, then eliminate the need for government to operate public institutions, leaving it all up to the individual and the exalted market.

User fees may have some place in state government, but it is a small and distinct one. But public universities, public schools, and public highways should be accessible to everybody regardless of the ability to pay.

We shouldn’t be heading down these two divided roads.