A DUTCH TREAT FOR STALLED, FUMING MOTORISTS

A DUTCH TREAT FOR STALLED, FUMING MOTORISTS

Every weekday, in morning and evening rush hours, urban motorists all over Western Europe sit in traffic and fume.

Britain has some of the worst road congestion problems, but it is not alone. Germany, Italy, Belgium and Holland are plagued by traffic jams too.It's a favorite topic of politicians, particularly those challenging parties in power, and a rallying cry for environmentalists and mass-transit advocates.

It's a strange debate, because it so often sidesteps the main issue: money. The discussion should be about how to finance new road construction to accommodate growing demand, and how to use the price system to better manage existing roads.

Instead, it often focuses on tangential issues, such as whether today's cleaner cars cause more or less pollution than do buses and trains, and whether mass transit should be encouraged as a morally superior alternative to giving precious road space to private cars.

Last week, an advisory council to the Dutch transport ministry addressed the money issue directly. In a report to Transport Minister Tineke Netelenbos, the advisory group dared to use the P-word - privatization - in connection with that nation's crowded roads.

Its argument was straightforward: A new, publicly owned ''national road corporation'' should be created. It would attract private funds to build and maintain roads that now are owned and managed by the government.

Such a company could charge tolls to repay investors, while at the same time increasing efficiency in road use by, for example, raising tolls during peak times.

Moreover, a corporation, even one owned by the government, would be able to design different ''products'' to appeal to different market segments - for example, offering high-speed lanes to those willing to pay higher tolls.

Above all, a corporation could offer motorists financial transparency, reporting to them how much they pay in tolls and how much they get back in the form of investment in better highways.

It was, and is, a valiant plan. Unfortunately it may be ahead of its time. Netelenbos is currently fighting for a less radical proposal to introduce tolls onto Dutch highways in exchange for lowering the nation's high vehicle excise taxes. Her proposal includes increasing transparency in road financing, so that motorists know where their toll money goes.

But she has run into opposition from two major parties in Parliament, and from city mayors who worry that drivers will clog up their streets to avoid the toll highways.

So the road privatization - or, more accurately, corporatization - plan most likely will be set aside, while Holland debates the merits of the ministry's proposal to require payment for road use directly, through tolls, rather than through excise and fuel taxes.

That, too, is a useful idea, particularly if it includes a commitment to set toll receipts aside in a separate fund, rather than mixing them in with general revenues.

European motorists, after all, pay some of the highest fuel and excise tax charges in the world and get little in return. According to the International Road Federation in Geneva, European Union motorists pay, on average, three times as much as they get back in the form of road building and maintenance.

Under the circumstances, any proposal to charge new tolls creates the immediate suspicion that governments have found yet another way to pick motorists' pockets. A separate fund for toll receipts, and regular reports on how the money is spent, would help to allay those fears.

Ultimately, though, governments will find that charging tolls will never generate the kind of capital needed to meet demand for roads. That's where private financing and private road management enter the picture.

It's not a new idea, in Europe or elsewhere. The United States and New Zealand, among others, have successful private roads.

In Europe, France, Italy and Portugal have turned over certain major highways to private companies, which manage them under government guidelines for road safety and pricing.

These experiments have proven popular. While tolls on some of those highways are high by U.S. standards, motorists have voted with their feet on the accelerator, choosing faster and safer toll roads over older and slower free national roads.

These examples may not be entirely relevant to the Netherlands, which has shorter distances - and hence lower potential profits - to offer private investors in road management. The country's dense network of roads and closely spaced exits also would require major investments in toll barriers and electronic toll-collection devices.

But even with those challenges, private management of roads can make economic sense.

The twice-daily traffic jams around Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and the Hague say it all: Demand for roads vastly exceeds the supply, and no amount of moralizing about the virtues of public transit will change that fact.

The real issue is when governments, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, will stop preaching about the evils of driving and start meeting customer demand.

If they can't manage the road system - and the traffic jams are proof that they can't - perhaps they should give private companies a chance to take the wheel.