What happens when you combine stupidity and grandstanding? Sadly, it's not rhetorical; there really is a punchline: D.C. Ward 8 Councilman (and ex-mayor) Marion Barry says he's putting together a commission to study tolls for roads leading into the District of Columbia.
If only the idea were less ham-handed than Barry would have us believe.
Let's take a quick stroll over to Google Maps. Take a spin around the District of Columbia: The city is generally bordered by three streets (Western Ave., Eastern Ave. and Southern Ave.) and the Potomac River. Starting at its westernmost point, let's go around and see all the ways we can get into D.C.:
Into Northwest: Clara Barton Parkway, MacArthur Blvd., Westmoreland Circle, River Rd., Wisconsin Ave., Oliver St., Chevy Chase Circle, Nevada Ave., Broad Branch Rd., Pinehurst Circle, Greenville St., Oregon Ave., Beach Dr., Primrose Rd., the unnamed circle on 16th St., Northgate Rd., 14th St., 13th St., 12th St., Georgia Ave., Juniper St., Blair Rd., Piney Branch Rd., Cedar St., Maple St., Caroll St., Laurel St. and Walnut Ave.
Into Northeast: Kansas Ave., Sligo Mill Rd., New Hampshire Ave., Rittenhouse St., Riggs Rd., Sargent Rd., Michigan Ave., Vamum St., Randolph St., Rhode Island Ave., Monroe St., Bladensburg Rd., New York Ave., Kenilworth Ave., Olive St., Minnesota Ave., Quarles St., Nash St., Meade St., 51st St., Sheriff Rd., Division Ave., Hunt Place, Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave., Foote St., 61st St., Dix St., 63rd St., Maryland Park Dr., E. Capitol St., Central Ave. and Fable St.
Into Southeast: H St., 51st St., Benning Rd., Easy Place, Bower Rd., Stanley St., Beck St., Massachusetts Ave., Fort DuPont St., Pennsylvania Ave., Suitland Rd., 36th Pl., Branch Ave., Naylor Rd., I-295, Suitland Parkway, 23rd St., Wheeler Rd., Bonini Rd. and S. Capitol St.
Into Southwest: I-395, Arlington Memorial Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, Francis Scott Key Bridge, Chain Bridge.
That's 85 entry points.
Additionally, the three roads that straddle the D.C.-Maryland line have a combined 96 turnoffs; presumably one could be on the far side of Eastern Ave., presumably in Maryland, and make a left turn into the District. (In fairness, some of those 96 are one-way outbound; but if I could skip a toll and there was no other traffic, I might be tempted. Also, in fairness, there are at least six roads that lead into D.C. but end or loop shortly after turnoff.)
So Councilman Barry wants to build 181 toll booths?
So Councilman Barry wants to build a set of five tollbooths for the entryways from Virginia?
Seven years ago, spurred on by Congressional action, the District took to studying how to reduce congestion on the 14th Street Bridge (I-395), the busiest of those five routes. In its own release, D.C. said it worked in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Transportation and various federal agencies. (D.C. did in fact build the original 14th Street Bridge back in the 50s; I tried to find just what the current agreement is as far as who does what, but was unsuccessful.)
So, presumably, Virginia would have to be somehow involved in this discussion. You think the Commonwealth of Virginia will stand for its residents being taxed without seeing a dime? Not likely.
Perhaps Councilman Barry wants the tollbooths just past the bridge, just far enough out of the reach of the Commonwealth. That, essentially, would be a toll to get into the city.
Fellow council member Kwame Brown had this revelation, according to the Times story: "You can't get into Philadelphia without paying a toll. If we're going to be a big city and act like a big city, most big cities have toll booths."
Far be it for Brown to let the facts get in the way of good posturing. Let's take a look at Philly for a moment.
Drivers crossing the Delaware River from New Jersey are subjected to tolls. All the major thoroughfares into Philly likewise have a westbound toll: the Ben Franklin, the Betsy Ross, the Walt Whitman. But this isn't only in Philadelphia; drivers on Rt. 1 pay a toll to cross into Morrisville, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb to the north. Furthermore, drivers pay a toll to cross the Commodore Barry bridge, which comes in near Chester and the Burlington-Bristol bridge that connects those two neighboring towns.
Tolls to cross the Delaware extend from the state of Delaware north to the northern Poconos.
Perhaps Councilman Brown would like his city to benefit from a toll on the American Legion Bridge, which doesn't even touch D.C.? Not likely.
His shortsighted comment - and Barry's shortsighted proposal - miss the point of tolls: To help pay for the structures that carry traffic, not to pay for the privilege of entering another jurisdiction.
Let's humor them for a moment. Let's imagine that they get their toll booths build, all 181 of them. What about the incredible backlog of cars that are now clogging streets in Maryland and Virginia? Late last year, Forbes ranked our commute the third-worst in the country.
"Not our problem," it's easy to imagine Barry saying.
Very well then. If the councilman wants his money so badly, then let him do something different: Make commuters pay tolls to get out of the city. Bridges in New York and Philly (as we've seen) collect inbound tolls, and the Massachusetts Turnpike collects them both ways. Let's see D.C. go against the grain and demand the opposite; they'll still get their money, after all.
What? That would clog up D.C. streets, you say? Well, we can't have that now, can we?
Good luck with your feasibility study, Councilman Barry. Just be sure you exhibit as much bombast when they come back with the answer that we all know already.