Do The New I-77 Toll Lanes Benefit Everyone? Let Me Spell It Out For You

Jun 10, 2019

I had to go up to Cornelius the other day, so I intended to try out the new toll lanes on I-77.

It turned out the traffic was light and I didn’t need to. But a few people were using the toll lanes anyway, flying past at 80 miles an hour, as if paying the toll means you don’t have to bother with the speed limit.

I can see how somebody might think that. It seems like there are a lot of places these days where having money means the rules don’t apply.

Did you hear about the National Spelling Bee? The Wall Street Journal recently reported that beginning last year, kids who didn’t win the regional qualifiers for the national bee could just buy their way in. Or, more likely, their parents could. Last year it cost $750 to get an automatic bid to the final. This year the price got jacked up to $1,500. It didn’t seem to be a deterrent. More than half the 562 contestants paid the fee.

There is at least some quality control at the spelling bee – the leadership there lets spellers buy their way in only if they’re serious competitors.

But as we’ve all seen lately, in other areas money serves to open the doors to the undeserving. That’s the whole point of the college admissions scandal from a few months ago. Kids who would never have qualified to get into Yale or USC on their own suddenly found themselves admitted, once their parents found the right pockets to line.

None of this, of course, is anything new. People with money have always been able to create their own express lanes to fulfill their wants and needs faster than other people can. The lobbying business is built on the idea that you can pay somebody to talk politicians into voting the way you want, without the unseemly act of just bribing them yourself.

I don’t begrudge anybody their riches if they’re deployed in a way that’s fair to the rest of us. If you’re a rich guy, buy as many cars as you want – the Constitution doesn’t guarantee me the right to a BMW. But it seems like everyone should have the right to the same public roads, without there being a better version for people who can spend more.

That’s what I realized when I was driving up I-77 the other day. These lanes aren’t like a toll bridge or a turnpike, where everybody pays the same. They’re a separator. They divide people into the haves and the have-nots, even if the stakes are just a few bucks a trip.

I will admit to being a total hypocrite about all this. A few months ago my wife and I took the Monroe bypass to get around the gridlock on U.S. 74, and I bet it shaved an hour off our drive. I’m going to pay for that every single time. The thing is, I can afford to. And because I can afford to, I get access to a public road that somebody of lesser means can’t use.

That’s not just like buying your way into the spelling bee. That’s like buying your way into the spelling bee and getting easier words. In fact, there’s an easy word for it: U-N-F-A-I-R.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.