On the transportation front, Congress has made a fool of itself in the last few weeks, with quarrels between the House and Senate making it difficult to interpret who’s in charge and little headway made thus far in solving the weighty question of how to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. The Fund is running on empty since it relies on revenue from the national fuel tax, whose receipts have been declining precipitously of late.
As a result, transportation experts and politicians have been fighting about the best way to find new funds, raising the possibility of increasing the gas tax, implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax, and, more recently, taxing oil speculators. Throughout the process, people have also been throwing around the idea that more widespread highway tolling could play an important role in filling the gap. Today, Ryan Avent suggested as much:
“Tolling highways would eliminate congestion. It would eliminate the perceived need to spend billions on general revenues on new highway capacity. And it would raise billions which could be used to keep highways in a good state of repair and provide effective public transportation for those unable or unwilling to pay for access to tolled highways. It would save gobs of money, time, lives, and emissions. We have a few excellent examples of these principles in action, but the prospects for wide-scale adoption of congestion tolling seems bleak. This is as straightforward a win-win-win-win public policy as one is likely to find. Shame about our political instutions being so awful and all.”
Ryan Avent’s right: there’s one good way to reduce congestion, and that’s by tolling roads. People will drive less if they have to pay to do so. In major cities like New York or London, tolls to drive into the center makes a lot of sense. Virtually everyone has the ability to use public transportation to get to Midtown or to the City from everywhere in the respective surrounding region. And the benefits — notably, faster bus transit services and a reliable income source for public transportation in general — are advantageous to people across the economic spectrum.
But outside of well-served, dense downtowns, tolling roads is no “win-win-win-win” policy. Rather, because America has such a car-dependent society, too much of the population needs an automobile to get around, and can’t afford to pay much more to drive it around, especially considering gas costs will inevitably increase.
Considering that Ryan Avent and I share almost the same “hometown” (him: Raleigh, me: Durham), I find it hard to believe that he would advocate wide-scale tolling. To implement measures today that would require people to pay to drive on most roads in the North Carolina Triangle would be a significant affront to the poor and much of the middle class, who are currently provided with embarrassing transit options that don’t get most people where they need to go in any reasonable amount of time. A regional rail system in the area, which has been in planning for decades, has yet to find a funding source. Most of America’s metropolitan areas have similarly dismal alternative transportation options.
A huge percentage of the U.S. population pays far too much for transportation; to put it simply, most working adults have no choice other than to own a vehicle and often to drive it dozens of miles every day. Making driving more expensive is a great way to devastate the already impoverished.
It’s true, tolling highways would save “money, time, lives, and emissions.” But it would also sacrifice the mobility of a large segment of America, because the reduced congestion would be a result of the poor and the middle class choosing not to drive because of expense, not because of choices made by the wealthy.
I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: the fairest, most logical way to fund transportation investments is through the general fund, paid for through an expansion in the progressive income tax. We all benefit, so we all should pay.
Many of us fight for better public transportation because we see it as a tool to reduce inequality; it expands mobility for people across class lines and it orients growth around neighborhoods that are more accessible to everyone, including those who choose — or have no choice — not to drive. Before we can start charging people to drive in semi-urban areas like the Triangle, we have a responsibility to dramatically improve transit and land use patterns. The latter must come before the former.