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How Do You Want to Pay?

Two stories in today's Post focused on the future of our transportation system. The U.S. Department of Transportation has encouraged some efforts to take the system private -- or at least push it in that direction. Lyndsey Layton and Spencer S. Hsu explored the federal effort to encourage states and private companies to let the market dictate which segments of the transportation network will be improved.

Eric M. Weiss describes several scenarios that are part of a regional review of road tolling options.

These ideas and more are contained in the report to Congress by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, which proposed a new way of looking at our needs in the 21st century.

There are two main theories behind the tolling concept:

In one scenario, market forces, rather than government, dictate where roads will be built or improved. Private companies will build or manage roads -- or both -- where they think they can make a profit. They make that profit by charging the users of the roads, which is easier these days because of the widespread use of electronic transponders. (The Dulles Greenway was an early version of this privatization approach.)

Many state governments envision also a tolling scenario that doesn't depend on private ownership or management, though that's not ruled out. In this version, controlling traffic congestion and raising money for transportation improvements are the main goals. (The publicly owned intercounty connector in Maryland will be an example. So would the proposed congestion zone for lower Manhattan, in which drivers pay to enter the heavy-traffic area.)

[Tuesday correction: In my original version of this item, I implied that the Bush administration backs only the first scenario. In fact, the administration has supported both approaches to tolling and congestion pricing, including the New York City congestion zone.]

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun were online Monday talking about road and rail issues.

We can pay for transportation improvements in a variety of ways, but we're going to pay. I think the privatization scenario will work sometimes, but there are problems: Since the private investors have to be confident they'll make money, only certain projects will advance, and the tolls charged may be incredibly high.

I like the idea of variable tolling as a control on congestion, whether it's applied to privately controlled or publicly controlled roads. But there are political issues here: Many people are suspicious of Virginia's plan to create high occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes on I-93/395 and the Capital Beltway. They know there's no limit on what the private company managing them can charge. Also, many of the proposed scenarios for congestion tolling involve existing roads, rather than new ones. You could wind up paying on any approach to downtown Washington, for example.

There's always the old fashioned way to pay: taxes. There's the gas tax, which governments are reluctant to increase, and there are other taxes, such as the set that the Virginia General Assembly approved in 2007 to finance transportation improvements in Northern Virginia. Those were struck down by the state Supreme Court and we're waiting to see if the legislature will come up with a new financing plan this spring.

Basically, it's users pay or we all pay. What's your poison?

By Robert Thomson  |  March 17, 2008; 10:37 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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It used (before 150 years ago or so) to be that most, if not all, intercity roads were privately-owned toll roads. There's a reason it's not that way anymore: basically owners levied exorbitant fees on captive users. There were riots over it. Sure, today's drivers have more mobility, but in high-congestion areas there isn't much room for competition of any sort (whether new roads or staying in no-cost lanes), and new economic centers aren't appearing nearly as fast as existing ones are growing: there isn't much opportunity to relocate, in other words.

Privately-owned freeways seem to me to open whole cans of worms: public domain for the benefit of private investors, public safety & infrastructure maintenance, public safety & speed limits, graduated tolls (perhaps transportation firms might negotiate lower tolls for their vehicles on the strength of a steady contribution to revenues, leading to private-vehicle subsidizing of commercial-vehicle use of private roadways, or trucks clogging them. In any case, analogously graduated tolls were one reason people rioted against tollroads 200 years ago. No, today is *not* the same as 200 years ago, but history does demand that certain things not be dismissed out of hand).

And "...users pay or we all pay" is a false dichotomy. Metro users certainly pay fares, but fares don't cover all costs.

Posted by: DrBubbles | March 17, 2008 11:58 AM | Report abuse

It doesn't really matter, around here the locals say no to building anything. Want to connect a road? Be prepared to wait 40 years and spend $10 trillion in studies.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 17, 2008 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Yes, we should definitely privatize all transportation. Just look at how well that works for air transportation. What a great, healthy, safe, convenient, and pleasant experience air travel is.

Earth to elected officials: transportation is not profitable. This is why it is a public good.

Posted by: Bob | March 17, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I hate tolls. Raise gas taxes a bit.

Posted by: dkf747 | March 17, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Ahh yes, lets spend tens of billions of dollars outfitting every car with a transponder and putting tolling hardware on every single road and highway in the DC Metro area with the intention of capturing actual miles traveled. That way, people can pay their share of road costs according to how much they drive.

Either that, or we could just raise the gas tax. That would allow people to contribute to road funding according to how much they drive. But raising the gas tax wouldnt cost tens of billions of dollars, and require decades of implementation, and be open to hackers/scammers/piracy. And it would not put billions of dollars in the pockets of private equity firms. But it would involve RAISING TAXES, and people around here are waaaayyyyyyy too smart to agree to that.

Posted by: WhyBotherAnymore | March 17, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Roads are public property. Turning a public road into private property is a hideous abrogation of governmental responsibility. The roads aren't there to make anyone money off the road itself. It's a public good and it should be treated as such. How the heck is anyone at the bottom of the economic lader supposed to pay for this?

Posted by: EricS | March 17, 2008 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Well said, everyone. Roads are public and should remain so. Who the hell is gonna notice a 5 or 10 cent gas tax hike....the oil companies are raising the price per gallon that much EVERYDAY!

I stay off toll roads...and generally I stay away from directmarketing and other pyramid schemes. In other words...why make the middle-men of the world any richer?

If we all refuse to pay the tolls, the toll collection firms would ahve to close up shop and run back to fat-cat town. Of course, if they sold the rights to the roads back to the municipalities - we'd get taxed again to make the purchase.

Posted by: Donny | March 17, 2008 3:13 PM | Report abuse

This proposal seems impractical for the simple reason that they can't toll every single square centimetre of pavement in the DC area, and if they can't do that, then the system won't work as intended. Put differently, I think it's fair to acknowledge that so-called "shunpiking," i.e., the taking of alternate routes to avoid a toll road, is a real phenomenon. You can easily find maps online showing how to bypass the notorious Delaware Turnpike toll plaza, and the former Dr. Gridlock (Ron Shaffer) regularly printed directions to New York and New England that avoided the toll roads in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.

If you put tolls on roads like New York Avenue, Rock Creek Parkway, the B-W Parkway, and the like, you will almost certainly see some drivers shift to other roads that go to the same place (for example, Rhode Island Avenue instead of New York Avenue, Columbia Road to 23d Street instead of Rock Creek Parkway, etc.). Realistically speaking, there is no feasible way for there to be a toll on every single road connecting Maryland to DC. Consider all the streets that cross Western Avenue or Eastern Avenue. Unless you want to toll EVERY residential street, you're going to have routes available that will let people avoid the tolls, and that raises a second problem: People using residential streets as commuter routes to avoid the toll routes. Surely we all know of the problems that occur when that sort of thing happens. Do local officials really want to consider a setup where that sort of thing is encouraged?

Posted by: Rich | March 17, 2008 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Here's an idea:

Stop building $3+ billion highways like the ICC through sensitive natural resource areas and maybe there will be some money left over from the tolls and taxes we already pay to maintain and improve existing roads and bridges.

Posted by: Dave | March 17, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I understand the need for increased transportation funding. We pay less than half what we used to pay in transportation taxes back in the 1950's and 1960's. Back then we had a lotta money to build all those interstates. Several things have happened between now and then:

1) cars got a lot more fuel efficient. Less tax per mile.

2) The tax rate per gallon decreased when inflation is accounted for. This is because the tax rates were set based on x cents per gallon, and in most jurisdictions are not indexed to inflation, consumer price indices, etc.

3) The price of building stuff has incrased. Like it or not, we live in a global economy and have to compete with China and India for building supplies on the free market. I won't get into politics now, but lets just say the reason prices are going up has a lot to do with the devaluation of the dollar compared to Yuen, Euros, Pounds, Rupees, etc.

4) Many cars are so gasoline efficient that they use only half as much as a normal car (hybrids), or none at all (electric cars).

I don't like increasing taxes any more than most people (though I do think tax and spend is better than borrow and spend). I think a lot of our government programs can be trimmed or eliminated. But I also realize that some government programs and services serve a public good, and should be funded even if they aren't profitable. Transportation is one of them. Realize also that transportation is generally funded from seperate pots of cash than other services. Cutting out all welfare and sending home every last illegal immigrant won't provide more money for transportation. The only way to provide funds for transportation is to raise funds dedicated to transportation.

Tolling seems like a waste to me. Just raise the gas tax, and find a way to tax other propulsion methods. Seems a lot more efficient than setting up a parallel tax collection system and associated bureaucracy.

Also: realize that the goal of tolling isn't just to make money, it is to have tolls high enough to discourage people from traveling. Ya know, kind of like the Dulles Greenway. I think such an idea might work in a place like Manhattan, but to toll literally every road and set prices depending on congestion to restrict peoples' ability to travel is just wrong. Not to mention that you never know how much a trip will cost. It could cost $2 today and then there could be an accident tomorrow which drives the toll up to $12. But if you have to get to work, you have to pay it regardless of how high it is.

That, my friends, is the goal of Bush's transportation bill from 2003. Hopefully we will have a more normal president by the time the next transportation bill is up who won't try to privatize everything.

Posted by: Woodley Park | March 17, 2008 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I'm unwilling to pay more taxes for roads until both the Federal and State governments stop spending money collected from people in this area on building and repairing roads somewhere else. Some 20% of the gas taxes collected from us by the Federal government is being sent off to places like California.

And DrBubbles makes a good point. It will do no good to allocate funds (regardless of the source) for roads if those roads can't get built. We need to come up with a way to override the obstructionism of the NIMBY crowd and the environmentalists.

After these two problems are solved, then I will consider paying higher gasoline taxes. But tolls? Sorry, no. I will move first.

Posted by: Elaine K | March 18, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

There's always going nto be winners and losers when it comes to how tax money is moved around. Rich areas pay more than poor ones and get a lesser return. That's just the way it is. If it were any other way poor areas would collapse completely.

I'm not against tolls, though I regularly dodge the ones at the Deleware border. Heck, that's so easy to do I'm suprised more people don't try it. I do object to public roads being turned into private money makers, no matter what the private company says they will do.

Posted by: EricS | March 18, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

When I first heard about charging tolls on the Potomac River bridges, I was shocked. How could the DC Metro area survive if they charged bridge tolls like virtually EVERY OTHER CITY in the country. People commuting from New Jersey to New York or Pennsylvania pay tolls to cross rivers. This is the only area I've seen where bridges between states are free.

Personally, I take the bus to the Metro, so tolls wouldn't effect me. Maybe charging some tolls would get more people to consider public transportation.

Posted by: mcrochip | March 18, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

The GAS TAX should be raised...and stop stealing from the transpo fund to pay for other things already!

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | March 18, 2008 2:28 PM | Report abuse

"sensitive natural resource areas"??? if they're that sensitive, lets exterminate the local population while we're at it and keep your mud pure

Posted by: Anonymous | March 18, 2008 4:34 PM | Report abuse

My objection is what is the money going to be used for? The counsel of governments report also stated that no new infrastructure should be built, so if we are paying all of this money in tolls what is being paid for? Metro? New light rail? The Dulles toll road is the best example of how why tolls don't help transit, because they ultimately become revenue sources for things other than transit even though their initial cost has long since been recouped. Unfortunately we are battling the American dream. All of our traffic woes would be fixed if everyone lived in the city like they are supposed to, but everyone wants that two car garage and a large yard with dog. We Washingtonians, unlike New Yorkers, have not given up that dream. Once we accept that, our traffic problems won't be as bad.

Posted by: Sivad | March 18, 2008 5:44 PM | Report abuse

We won't get control back from the NIMBYs and environmentalists until there are judges who are willing to throw out most of the lawsuits, i.e. find them not even worth considering. Until then, expect people to sue, sue, sue whenever someone is about to put down new concrete.

As for congestion pricing, I think that the idea itself is sound enough, but perhaps it should wait until we make sure all current road user fees are actually being spend on the roads first.

Posted by: mpetrie98 | March 18, 2008 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Sivad, you are a housing NAZI

Posted by: Anonymous | March 19, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

If the roads were built well enough in the first place they wouldn't be in such bad shape.
The highways were built with public funds. No private firm would pay what they are actually worth. And no citizen should have to pay "whatever the market will allow" as we have done with water, electric and natural gas. Next it will be subscrptions for police, fire, and other services. And how about privatizing all schooling while we're at it. That system seems to be failing as well.
How far do you want to go?

Posted by: hjr | March 20, 2008 8:53 PM | Report abuse

If the roads were built well enough in the first place they wouldn't be in such bad shape.
The highways were built with public funds. No private firm would pay what they are actually worth. And no citizen should have to pay "whatever the market will allow" as we have done with water, electric and natural gas. Next it will be subscrptions for police, fire, and other services. And how about privatizing all schooling while we're at it. That system seems to be failing as well.
How far do you want to go?

Posted by: hjr | March 20, 2008 8:53 PM | Report abuse

With the way Big Brother watches over us, I am sure they can toll every single millimeter of even dirt roads!!! But seriously, I think the gas tax is better than that. Although "Woodley Park"'s post about different cars getting different mileage could be solved by having having a yearly mileage check at which time you billed a mileage tax in lieu of a gasoline tax. Of course, to be feasible, those with the fat lazy arses at the DMV would have to step outside during each mileage check. Nahh! Not gonna happen!!!

Posted by: Ed | March 20, 2008 9:05 PM | Report abuse

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