Tolling, Part II

This morning, I criticized the effort by some to ramp up the use of tolls on highways as an unjust funding mechanism that will decrease the mobility of the poor and lower middle class. Ryan Avent responded, arguing that tolling’s flaws can be addressed and that road pricing is an effective method to increase funds for mass transit.

Avent argues that tolling could be made equitable by refunding “some of the revenues to lower-income workers” — something that he claims would probably be necessary to “get a plan like this passed.”

I have few illusions that such a progressive policy would be included with a nationwide tolling plan; when it comes to transportation, we Americans are particularly regressive. Tolling is common in much of the Northeast, but lower-income residents there do not get cash back. A look at our transit fare policies similarly demonstrates that we have no predilection for providing mobility benefits to people of fewer resources.

In other words, in an ideal world, we might have a congestion relief package in Congress that included both widespread tolling and rebates to low-income families. But evidence thus far suggests that we would probably only get the former, and that the poor would be stuck paying a higher percentage of their income on transportation than currently. That said, I might be willing to support a tolling plan that includes specific measures designed to feed revenue back into the transportation budgets of needy families.

Avent points out that congestion places a major cost burden on our society, but that this lost money could be retrieved as traffic diminishes because of tolling. The fact of the matter is that widespread road pricing would force a huge number of people off the roads — a good idea in the abstract — but one that would inevitably increase commute times — and decrease productivity — for a large segment of the population. Is it really better for low-income workers to sit twice as long in a bus than for them to cause some congestion on our roadways?

The most important issue here, however, is that much of the American landscape is so oriented around encouraging automobile use that it becomes ridiculous to argue that we could ever provide effective, efficient transit to everyone with tolling revenue. We could make a dent in improving service to some corridors, but the fact remains that even a doubling or tripling of services offered in most communities wouldn’t mean “good” public transportation.

That’s because most of our suburban and even urban communities are structured to favor car travel — something that no increase in transit provision will ever solve. Many of the people who barely get by paying for their automobiles today live in places that are only really accessible by car. Forcing them onto transit by pricing them off roads will only worsen our economy, no matter the potential congestion benefit.

Widespread tolling would be an appropriate manner to address congestion if public transportation could be improved to an extent to make it acceptable to the rich and the poor, in every neighborhood of each metropolitan area. That would only be possible if our communities were dense and transit-oriented, walkable and mixed-use; unfortunately, the vast majority of them are not, and we have decades to go before they will be. In other words, let’s stop building new highways and even which increasing transit capacity, but not start tolling until we’re satisfied with the public transportation our society offers.

Addendum:

A number of commenters have rightfully pointed to the fact that land use is not static and therefore that shifting resources to transit would address the dilemma facing toll-paying suburbanites by densifying uses around transit stations. I have no doubt that that will occur over time — it’s already happening in cities across the country. Here’s the problem: that shift takes years, not weeks, because you need to plan and construct the new homes and businesses that are transit-oriented in the midst of car-culture suburbs. This transition would only affect a portion of suburban land: when you densify, people take up less area; this means that even with better land use, large numbers of suburban cul-de-sacs will remain as they are, far from any reasonable transit service. Huge numbers of people in the lower middle class will continue to live in these environments.

As a result, we have a choice: either penalize a segment of the population for years through road pricing because they’ve bought or rented a home in a sprawled-out neighborhood, even though we’ve spent the last few decades encouraging them to do just that; or, expand transit significantly and focus development in accessible neighborhoods, and find ways to encourage people to live in them, all the while making suburban home habitation less appealing but stopping the expansion of highways. Then we can toll.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Alex

    If you want to avoid a toll, take the non-expressway roads.

    That is how it is done in Japan. I lived there for a few years (in Aichi, the “car capital” of Japan), and I must say, while you pay a lot for the highway, they certainly are glorious to drive on. Very well maintained.

  • Dustin

    Actually, people might harp on me for saying this, but I would tend to disagree with your statement that “even a doubling or tripling of services offered in most communities wouldn’t mean ‘good’ public transportation.” I’ve ridden transit in quite a few places around this country — I almost never get into a car, no matter where I go, whether for business or pleasure — so I’ve become pretty familiar with what’s out there. In my experience, in most places that have a fixed-route transit system, the buses run at least hourly. Granted, sometimes they may run every two or three hours, but those routes tend to be the ones that serve farther-out areas.

    So, let’s say we took those hourly buses and doubled the service on them. They now operate with 30-minute headways. And if we tripled service on those routes? A bus would come every 20 minutes. Probably still more convenient to carry a timetable, but every 20 minutes really isn’t that bad, even compared to bus service in most smaller communities in Europe.

    And in larger cities — what many would call second- or third-tier cities — bus routes tend to run every 30 to 45 minutes. So, what if we doubled service on those routes? We would have many buses coming every 15 minutes, and now we’re talking about not needing a timetable. Triple the service on a route that currently has 30-minute headways? Buses would come every 10 minutes, which is pretty good no matter where you are.

    Add to it extended hours and weekend (especially Sunday) service, and we’d be well on our way to having fairly decent transit service across the country. So, I return to my original statement: I think doubling or tripling current transit service in a lot of communities would be very significant.

    And can you imagine if we could double or triple the number of transit users in America? It would still be a pretty small percentage, but it would make a tremendous difference. Doubling or tripling transit service — and figuring out how to pay for that increased service — would be the best way to double or triple its use.

  • TrainsinTokyo

    If you want to avoid a toll, take the non-expressway roads.

    That is how it is done in Japan. I lived there for a few years (in Aichi, the “car capital” of Japan), and I must say, while you pay a lot for the highway, they certainly are glorious to drive on. Very well maintained.

    Not to derail, but in Japan we pay for these “glorious” roads in other ways — crippling amounts of public debt, taxes, traffic, environmental damage, etc. So there is no panacea.

  • I think you have too much invested in the idea that our communities are almost totally static in terms of land use. That is absolutely foolish. The model for the last 50 years is that people have been chasing cheap housing and highways and free use of them let that happen. If we turn the table upside down and make people chase cheaper transportation then we will see very quick land use changes!

    Our urban fabric transformed in the matter of a generation post war with auto friendly policies and anti-urban marketing. Watch in generation the pattern revert. You’d be amazed what people will respond to. The high gas prices imparted higher transit among those who had it available and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people moving closer to the city center.

    As it is happening right now by increasing transit capacity along with denser land use that can support that transit is only for the upper middle class. Municipalities don’t want to pay for it unless there will be some tax revenue spin-off from that transit investment. Therefore we get outrageously mis-marketed TOD developments for people who drive anyway, though they now have the option to have transit nearby. See Rockville Town Center in Maryland – how many parking spots did they build, and how much is the rent? Too many and too much respectively. We need the pressure on the wallets of the poor and middle class so they push developers to offer TOD communities to their market strata – not luxury condos for the do-gooder upper middle class who want to live in trite new urbanist pretend communities.

  • Patrick

    I have to disagree with your statement “That’s because most of our suburban and even urban communities are structured to favor car travel — something that no increase in transit provision will ever solve.”

    Urban form follows transportation pretty closely – when we built streetcars, we got streetcar suburbs; when we built freeways, we got modern suburban sprawl.

    Tollng would be painful initially, but urban form will adjust. But in the meantime, congestion pricing could be tried in places that already have adequate publc transportation as a pilot program. And transit improvements could happen at the same time. For example, DC could implement congestion pricing and use the proceeds to fund the purple line. Manhattan could implement a cordon toll and use it to fund the Second Ave Subway and save the MTA.

  • The low-income residents of the Northeast don’t usually own cars. They live in inner cities with low car ownership and high asthma rates, caused by cars driven by other people. Although in terms of progressive taxation it’d be better to replace tolls with an income tax, the public health hazards caused by more driving are disproportionately borne by people in such communities as East Harlem, who typically don’t own cars.

    Outside the Northeast and California, pollution depends on the city. The big cities, like Houston and Atlanta, have a lot of it, usually because of car use (though in Houston’s case, it’s also caused by heavy manufacturing). The smaller ones don’t. Either way, those states are more tax-averse than California or the Northeastern states, so for them tolls would defray regressive sales and property taxes rather than progressive income taxes; they may well cause more property tax money to be diverted to chronically underfunded public schools.

  • I see no reason why tolling couldn’t be phased in gradually over the course of a few years. There would be an initial token toll to bring an awareness of the connection between driving and one’s pocketbook, and a guaranteed schedule of toll increases would allow people to start planning their course of action.

    People who would be unable or unwilling to pay that eventual high toll would quickly form a critical mass of people demanding transit in regions that do not yet have adequate transit. By the time the tolls are fully in place, transit would have seriously improved and a fair amount of transit-oriented development would have been spurred.

    Improvement in transit and development of transit infrastructure will both move faster and better when the populace has a visceral reason to support them.

  • “The most important issue here, however, is that much of the American landscape is so oriented around encouraging automobile use that it becomes ridiculous to argue that we could ever provide effective, efficient transit to everyone with tolling revenue. We could make a dent in improving service to some corridors, but the fact remains that even a doubling or tripling of services offered in most communities wouldn’t mean “good” public transportation.

    That’s because most of our suburban and even urban communities are structured to favor car travel — something that no increase in transit provision will ever solve. Many of the people who barely get by paying for their automobiles today live in places that are only really accessible by car. Forcing them onto transit by pricing them off roads will only worsen our economy, no matter the potential congestion benefit.”

    I find these paragraphs particularly unusual, coming from someone which I have never disagree with. Fifty years ago few could fathom the kind of cities we live in now. A lot has changed and to simply say that everything will continue to be how it is, and that it is impossible to try to change our built environment is ignoring how we got to where we are now.

    I also find it interesting that not once do you even acknowledge that tolls are a direct user fee. That is what they are, and to apologize for asking people to pay for a public good is only reasonable, especially when it goes again the grain of almost every singe national priority.

    Our transportation problem is really a land use problem and until most market forces and government regulations favor denser, transit oriented community we will never solve our transportation problem. Tolls are a game changer and to believe that substantial changes in the built environment can come about without tolls is unrealistic.

  • “As a result, we have a choice: either penalize a segment of the population … or, expand transit significantly …”

    The rhetoric of false choice in this post’s addendum puts its flawed thinking into even sharper relief. Not only are there many alternatives to and a spectrum between A and B, but B is essentially what US progressives have been pretending to do for decades and here we are still: Beseeching the government to “expand transit significantly” but standing in the way of any funding that might make that possible. Failing to advocate higher income taxes in an effective way or at all. Throwing a tantrum because the mean feds insult us with plans of 100 mph rail.

    “Then we can toll.”

    Seriously? Be sure to let the PA of NY/NJ, & co., know when it’s okay with you for them to get back to discouraging driving and recouping a portion of its extensive external costs. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have mainstream American progressive approval.

    The solution advocated by t.p. is simply to hope harder. Maybe this is the decade American majorities will vote for higher taxes for transit infrastructure, even as their driving remains uncommonly cheap for an uncertain, but certainly limited, period of time. But this blog could at least have the intellectual honesty to admit we are not and will not be doing an exclusive A or B, that we could do some greater degree of the “regressive” use-pricing of expensive highway infrastructure (as practiced by that noted capitalist hellhole, The French Republic) without killing the poor.

    It’s not about doing something before something else, it’s about doing anything at all.

  • nathan_h-
    Thanks for your comment.

    I would like to point out something very important about tolls in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York: most of them affect people who do have serious travel alternatives, intercity, in the form of Amtrak and commuter rail, and inner city in the form of heavy rail, light rail, and significant bus networks. You should also note that the majority of revenues from tolling in those places does not go towards transit operations — it goes towards road funding. More importantly, the tolls were added after the travel options I mentioned previously were offered.

    My principal point is that a large extent of this country’s population does not currently have travel options anywhere resembling those offered in the Philadelphia and New York metro regions. That is an incredibly important difference that makes all the difference for people who do not have the means to pay tolls.

    I would also like to note that on this blog, I have repeatedly encouraged a number of possible funding sources, from increased personal income taxes to corporate income taxes, to even, from time-to-time, sales taxes. I am not “hoping harder” on this blog, I hope, but rather providing an argument against a particular funding source from a socio-economic perspective. Just because a source of revenue is on the table doesn’t make it an acceptable one.

  • Yonah, thanks for replying.

    You have pointed out this very important thing several times. I’m will aware of the differences in transit coverage; I live in the northeast to take advantage of them. But you haven’t applied the same qualification to your universal concluding statement that “then we can toll,” which is why I have to point out again that, “now, we do toll,” and thank god we do or things would be even worse.

    As far as I can tell you refuse to endorse the toll revenue stream even if it were targeted to geographic areas where transportation alternatives abound. This is a very real problem for transportation advocates like myself in NYC who are up against the same populist attitude that you have against tolls even though we do have the alternatives. We still have toll-free auto bridges into this city paralel to a half dozen of subway lines, and people rail against tolling them because the subway doesn’t go by *their* house. Are you quite sure you would ever be able to endorse tolls in some future “then we can toll”, or would your sympathy for the self-made plight of the driving public expand with our transit network?

    There is a spectrum of transportation alternatives, ranging from high quality trains to bicycles to simply traveling less. (I do them all without suffering.) I’ve mentioned limited access highways as a good place to start a change. Like the rest of the world we could toll most expressways without starving anyone to death; to the contrary it would save thousands of lives in reduced driving fatalities. Standard roads would remain free, but of course they are slower. It’s no different or more cruel than grocery shopping

    The chicken egg situation you’ve set up, your demand that one thing happen before the other: it’s not productive. We desperately need to do many things at once, by degrees, starting yesterday. I’m sorry to be so blunt and go on at such length. I have been reading ttp for a while and I do respect the work you put into your advocacy; this is why I’m so frustrated to see it undermined by a futile stand against the market economy that transportation, like everything else, must compete in.

  • What’s striking about this debate is how irrelevant it is to the political reality. One side wants widespread tolling, the other side wants much denser residential patterns first – but the prospect of either one of these things happening in the near future is nil.

    I think it’s important to have these debates, but the much harder work of getting out from behind our computers and doing effective grassroots organizing in support of denser development and greater funding for transit is far, far more important. Until we build popular political support for these things, online debates are meaningless.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Prove you\'re not spam (required) Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

  • by Yonah Freemark
  • Twitter: @yfreemark
  • yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com
  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed