How to Pay for Streets and Highways

Tolls. Yes, everyone hates them. That’s an overstatement, of course. I love toll roads, as do a lot of people who either enjoy the less-stressful experience of driving on them or just want to get somewhere faster than they otherwise could.

Tolls are the way to go, because: Users — and only users — should pay for roads, in accordance with the frequency with which they use them and the amount of wear and tear to which they subject them. Sure, there are some taxes that are supposed to pay for streets and highways, but they don’t cover the full cost cost of construction and maintenance, and they’re often diverted to other uses.

It’s a simple matter to issue everyone a registration sticker that includes a toll tag. Big rigs get one kind of tag (which charges at the highest rate), and so on down to motorcycles and bicycles. Yes, that means you, the traffic-clogging bicyclist. From now on you’ll have to pay for the privilege of mixing with motor vehicles or cavorting in your own little-used lane, It’s a privilege that contributes to congestion by reducing the space available for motor-vehicle lanes and flow-enhancing features (e.g., turning lanes).

With mandatory toll tags, there would be no more mail-in payments, which means no more deadbeats. Everyone who wants to use a public highway would have to register a valid payment method: credit card, debit card, or direct debit to a checking account. No checking account? Too bad. Take the bus. If you don’t have a checking account, you probably can’t afford auto insurance. So you’re driving without it, and driving up other people’s insurance rates.

What about all the tag readers that would be required? I forgot to mention that registration stickers would have GPS trackers embedded in them.

Problem solved, except for the matter of “privacy,” that all-purpose excuse for the subversion of social norms. But “privacy” worshipers might be persuaded to go along, given these considerations:

  • “Unnecessary” trips would be discouraged, thus reducing the use of fossil fuels.
  • Businesses, as buyers of goods shipped over highways, would pay their “fair share.” (The cost of tolls would be passed on to customers, of course, but that wouldn’t negate the feel-good effect for anti-business crowd.)
  • “Sprawl” would be discouraged.
  • “Buy local” would be encouraged.
  • Internet retail would grow even faster than it has been growing (a negation of the preceding point, but the “buy local” crowd wouldn’t notice), which would further reduce the use of fossil fuels.

I suspect that the net effect of all this would be next to zero, but it would please me no end if users (and only users) paid for roads, and if bicyclists were forced to pay for the privilege of adding to traffic congestion — and for their smugness.

5 comments

  1. This is an interesting topic that a friend brought up over his visit to Kansas. He was critical of the privatized roads there while I tried to play Devil’s Advocate. Do you think that the toll should be scaled to, say, people’s income bracket? This is one criticism of traffic citations not being proportional to earnings such that those with lower incomes experience more of an impact to citations than say rich Hollywood celebrity types who seem to keep getting more infractions since the punishment doesn’t deter them. I’d like to get your thoughts on this.

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  2. I’m opposed in principle to scaling tolls to income. Use is use. Highways cost the same amount to build and maintain regardless of the incomes of the people who use them. But, as mentioned in the post, toll rates would be scaled to the size of the vehicle, so poor folks — who usually drive small cars — would pay lower rates than drivers of SUVs and luxury cars. I recognize, however, that there would be a clamor to provide some kind of subsidy for low-income people. That’s politics as usual. If there is a subsidy, it should take the form of vouchers redeemable only to pay toll charges, and not usable for any other purpose.

    There might be a reasonable case for scaling traffic fines to income, inasmuch as the purpose of fines (other than income for the city or county) is to deter bad driving. So a $10,000 fine for a Hollywood star might have some deterrent effect, whereas a $500 fine would be meaningless. The problem is that the lawyers would get into the act and claim that their rich clients were being deprived of “equal protection of the laws,” and probably would win — though it might be close if it got to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bottom line: the idea of relating fines to incomes actually has merit, but it’s probably a non-starter.

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  3. P.S. A voucher would really be a statement credit: a percentage reduction of the balance due, scaled according to income. This would ensure that low-income credits are used only for tolls and only by the people who are supposed to get the credits. There would be no up-front cash that could be used for other purposes, and no great incentive to waste tax money. As long as the credit is less than 100% (and it should be a lot less than that) the owner of a vehicle pays more in tolls as he racks up more miles.

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  4. I don’t mind toll roads at all — I’ve always thought it made sense for the people who use something to pay for it. I’ve never understood why anyone objects to paying for things they use, or expects someone else to pay for them.

    But to show you just how naïve I can be… A few years ago in Wisconsin there was a referendum on the ballot about whether state law should require that money raised for road maintenance and repair via the state gasoline tax, license fees, etc. could be used ONLY for road maintenance and repair. I was shocked. No, really, I was! Here I’d thought all these years that that was what that money was being spent on. Another one of my comfortable illusions shattered.

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  5. We went through the same thing in Texas a few years ago. And I, too, was surprised that it was necessary to amend the Texas constitution to ensure that money collected for roads actually was spent on roads.

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