On A Road to Nowhere

For as long as I can remember living in Virginia (so basically since I was 16), traffic congestion has been an ongoing issue. In particular, the debate has raged about whether and how to pay for road maintenance, road expansion, public transportation, the works. The most common answer has been raising the gas tax, but both Virginia and Washington state are discovering that this is becoming less viable as vehicles become more fuel efficient, particularly as people switch over to alternative fuel vehicles (darn those perverse incentives!).

Naturally, I wouldn’t broach the issue if I didn’t have a suggestion to offer, and naturally it’s one that would never fly in the world of real politik, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway. It seems to me what we have here is an issue of putting the cost in the wrong place (as usual), and even the attempts to switch the cost are being driven by (at best) political expediency and (at worst) political ideology. I suggest we get back to the original issue, determine where the costs are being created, and find a way to apply those costs to the people creating them in the first place in the most direct way possible.

The first step is this: consider the actual cost we are facing. The issue at hand is not one of too few roads, or too many cars, or too few people taking public transit. The issue at hand is choice in transportation. That choice is influenced, at least on the margin, by cost (convenience and accessibility obviously play a factor as well, but those are ultimately a factor of cost as well). The issue is not a matter of whether people are or are not purchasing gasoline, nor the purpose to which they put it. After all, I use gasoline to run my lawn mower, but that has no impact on the quality of the roads in Virginia or anywhere else; however if my neighbor down the street owns an electric car he uses no gasoline as he adds stress and traffic to the highways and byways. The same applies for buses, rail, or any other form of transit. Let the cost fall where it should, and let the revenue generated be applied to support the source that generated it.

How would we do it? One example that easily presents itself is the new toll lanes on 495. All that is required to use these express lanes is an E-ZPass, which can also be used on any road that accepts E-ZPass in VA or thirteen other states. Right off the bat you can start charging people for the roads they use, not the gas they burn, and you can even track where the funds are being generated so that you know which roads should get the funding for either repair or expansion. Taking this idea one step further, you could even set varying levels of tolls depending on the level of anticipated traffic demand in the area, charging more for high-traffic times and less for lower traffic times (somewhat like Metro does with their Peak and Off-Peak fares).

And hey, speaking of Metro, how about we stop subsidizing public transportation and actually charge people what it costs? I’m sure once we stop subsidizing the roads people will see the real value of public transit, since the real cost of public roads is significant but most people never see them, what with it being paid for out of taxes. Shift that burden onto drivers, and suddenly folks will actually be able to make a real apples-to-apples comparison: is it really worth the cost of driving to work considering the tolls, gas, cost of a car, parking, etc., or would you rather have the inconvenience of taking Metro? Speaking as a driver myself… I have no idea. I’ve never paid the real cost, up front, of driving on a road anywhere, so I can’t make a serious informed decision. I can only make a decision based on the reality in front of me, which is that roads are free, my car is convenient, and Metro is neither.

And of course that’s why it would never fly. Any time you try to shift the actual cost of a thing or service to the people who actually benefit from it there are howls of outrage. “It’s unfair!” “It’s regressive!” “Let the rich pay their fair share!” (That last one is my favorite.) Setting aside any argument about whether the rich actually benefit more from the existence of public roads (I didn’t realize they enjoy driving more than I do), let’s tackle the other two.

As for being unfair, I’ll speak as a driver once more when I say it’s unfair for someone else to shoulder the burden of paying for the roads I drive on. Every day I drive to work, someone else is paying for every mile I drive. That’s pretty much the definition of “unfair”. As far as being “regressive”, my understanding of that argument (and I could well be wrong here) is that it hurts people more the less they make. While there could be a kernel of truth to it, I would like to point out that the less money you have, the less driving you are likely to do. Ergo, the less likely you are to be hit by a toll. This plan is no more regressive than the gas tax or any tax on vehicles, and in many ways is less so, in that it only charges you for distance spent driving on public roads; any other use of gasoline (including time spent idling in traffic) doesn’t count against you. In many ways that would seem to me to at least be less regressive.

Is this a perfect plan? Far from it. But it at least starts to shift the costs where they belong, aligning incentives so that people will have a reason to consider the choices they make, and if nothing else it will more honestly generate revenue in line with the source of the costs. That’s a far better thing than simply waving a hand and declaring a fiat fix based on political whims.


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