JIM KERASIOTES, the Massachusetts secretary of transportation, is as savvy as they come. If anyone can apply a shine to a sneaker, he can. Witness the great spin he has been able to put on the highway outrage scheduled to begin tomorrow on the Southeast Expressway.
As of 6 a.m. Wednesday, the eight lanes currently available to Expressway drivers between Freeport Street and the Braintree split are going to be reduced to seven. The eighth lane will still be there, but you won't be allowed to use it -- unless you happen to be a bus driver, which is unlikely, or to be ferrying at least two other people, which is also unlikely. Plus, several of the lanes will be narrower, shrinking up to 1 foot from their present width.
Upshot: The Boston-South Shore commute is about to become even more unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unsafe. And how was this disagreeable news reported? Under a Page 1 headline that trumpeted, "The relief is just ahead for Expressway drivers."
Is that great spin, or what?
The Massachusetts Highway Department has taken one fairly sensible idea and yoked it to a perfectly dreadful idea. The sensible idea was to ease congestion by dividing the Expressway's lanes 5-3 instead of 4-4, with the busier side getting the extra lanes. The stretch of I-93 between Furnace Brook Parkway and Dorchester has been reconfigured so the fourth and fifth lanes in will run in the same direction during rush hour -- northbound in the morning, southbound in the evening. If the technology for "zipping" the inside lanes open and shut works as advertised -- it requires a tank-like vehicle to shove six miles' worth of concrete barriers back and forth twice a day, so don't assume anything -- commuters will always find five lanes available for the heavier traffic.
So far, so good.
But the state wasn't content to just supply an extra lane. It's also putting it off-limits to any vehicle carrying fewer than three passengers. The odds are excellent that that includes you, since the vast majority of commuters drive to work alone. In short, the Highway Department designed a way to add a new lane for rush hour, then designed a way to keep almost everyone out of it. In government, this is called progress.
Carpool lanes -- or "high-occupancy vehicle" (HOV) lanes, as the wonks call them -- are a favorite nostrum of the environmental pressure groups and urban planners who detest solo drivers. The idea is to restrict most commuters to an agonizing crawl while buses and carpools whiz by in half-empty lanes. Like the "If-you-lived-here-you'd-be-home-now" signs at Charles River Park, HOV lanes are meant to rub drivers' noses in the aggravation of rush-hour congestion. Make the contrast between sluggish solo driving and zippy HOV commuting great enough, the commissars reason, and motorists will wake up, smell the diesel fumes, and rearrange their lives to fit the bureaucrats' plans.
Read the Highway Department's ads in the Sunday paper. Good little commuters who form carpools will "bypass congestion, saving time and trouble," the ads promise. "And if you don't believe it, just look at the faces of the drivers you'll be passing by!" Obnoxious taunting is a key part of the plan.
The Charles River Park signs make thousands of drivers despise Charles River Park. The Highway Department's HOV lanes will likewise succeed only in making more motorists loathe the Highway Department.
And loathe it they should. Redesigning this six-mile stretch of the Expressway is costing at least $23 million. And who benefits? The small fraction of commuters who take the bus or find it convenient to carpool. Yet those are the commuters who pay the least in gas taxes, excise taxes, and automobile sales taxes. Nobody suggests penalizing them with worse highway service than the rest of us, but where is the equity in rewarding them with better service?
The reason rush hour on the Expressway is so congested is not that too many people want to drive their own cars. It's that too many people want to drive at the same time. Carpooling isn't going to solve that problem. Neither, in the long run, are extra lanes.
The only real solution to rush-hour congestion is peak-hour pricing -- i.e., you pay more to drive at the busy times, less at other times. Right now, the monetary price of using the Expressway at the height of rush hour -- $ 0.00 -- is the same as using it when rush hour is over. Or of taking an alternate road and not using it at all. So everyone gets on at the busiest times, and huge traffic jams result.
But if those who drove the Expressway paid for it -- and paid the most when it was most in demand -- rush-hour traffic would instantly improve. (Of course, gas taxes would need to be reduced so the state didn't end up with more money). Require commuters to pay and you'd give them an incentive to travel at cheaper hours or by cheaper routes. You'd end the fiction that highways are "free." You'd make 2-mile backups a thing of the past. You'd benefit every driver, not just those in carpools.
You'd end up with an Expressway that was truly express. And you wouldn't have to run ads inviting some drivers to lord it over others.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)