Skip to comments.Driving Takes Its Toll
Posted on 09/04/2004 7:31:58 AM PDT by Lessismore
This summer, Americans continued to rack up highway miles. Even while higher gas prices raised vacationing and commuting costs, most drivers acted as though this was a temporary glitch, complacently looking forward to the return of reasonable prices. For decades, Americans have grown too accustomed to cheap gas, buying S.U.V.'s and V-8's, driving more and more miles per capita every year. We are now more dependent on imported oil than ever before. But is there any viable alternative? Our own history offers us a possible solution.
Starting in 1916, the federal government dispensed millions of dollars in highway grants to states, without collecting a penny from consumers of the new highways. There was no federal gas tax, and tolls were banned on the new roads. But desperate for cash and pressed to pay their share of road-building expenses, states tried to pass on some of the costs to drivers.
At first this was only through state gas taxes. But these levies were effectively limited by lobbyists from auto manufacturers, oil companies, tire makers, highway engineers and road builders - all of whom wanted to increase car use as much as possible. With this source of revenue capped, some states turned to toll roads.
When Pennsylvania announced plans to build a toll-financed turnpike in 1937, Washington gasped. If other states followed Pennsylvania's lead, then federal bureaucrats would lose the control they had enjoyed for more than 20 years. They tried to squash the project, issuing pessimistic traffic forecasts to scare away lenders. But the Pennsylvania Turnpike was built anyway, and was hugely successful.
Within a year, New York, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts entered the toll-road business. A decade later, when the Eisenhower administration was preparing the Interstate highway legislation, even more states - New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Texas - had joined the movement. It was clear: drivers understood that tolls were a fair way to pass on the high costs of road-building to highway-users, in direct proportion to how much they drive.
But despite its proven viability, this alternative became the proverbial road not taken. The Interstate legislation, as enacted in 1956, put a stop to new toll-road construction, and we instead proceeded with a socialized transportation system, available to the consumer at no charge, mostly paid for from general revenue. Toll-road construction ceased, and with the exception of a handful of projects, all new highways built since have been freeways.
There is a mistaken notion that American drivers pay for their roads through gas taxes. Actually, even though states collect gas taxes and a modest federal levy was imposed to pay part of the Interstate expenses, the total of these charges never amounted to more than one-third of highway costs. Such taxes, adjusted for inflation, have actually decreased, and efforts to increase them are politically risky, even though each 1-cent rise in the gas tax costs the average driver less than $8 a year. In practice, our roads and highways have been underwritten by general taxation. With gas taxes and tolls capped by effective lobbying, this annual subsidy has grown, amounting to billions of dollars annually.
With driving so generously subsidized and the true costs hidden, Americans have driven more and more miles each year.
Now we need to reconsider the road not taken. We must stop encouraging over-dependence on oil by under-pricing our roads and hiding the true costs of highway driving. Of course, to impose new gas taxes on top of the recent spike in prices may be politically impossible. But if oil prices drop, we should be ready to raise gas taxes. In the meantime, we should expand the use of tolls to finance expressways.
The toll roads built in the 1940's and 1950's still exist, although some have been converted to free highways. But instead of removing tolls from these roads, as is occasionally suggested, we should go in the other direction. All of our major Interstates, across the country, should have tolls that are high enough to defray the full costs of building and maintaining the highway network and also high enough to make us change our driving habits.
We don't have to bring back the frustrating traffic bottlenecks at old-fashioned tollbooths now that the logistics of collecting tolls have been greatly simplified by systems like E-ZPass, FastLane and SmartTag. But by permanently raising the artificially low cost of driving, we could encourage people to drive fewer miles and to place a higher value on fuel efficiency, ultimately reducing our dependence on imported oil.
Instead of letting drivers onto our expensive, world-class highway system free, we should charge a fair price by imposing more and higher tolls, and raising gas taxes much higher, permanently. Otherwise, our insatiable need for petroleum will continue to distort our foreign policy, to undermine the stability of our economy and to damage the environment.
Owen D. Gutfreund, the author of "20th-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape," is a professor of history and urban studies at Barnard College.
"Instead of letting drivers onto our expensive, world-class highway system free, we should charge a fair price by imposing more and higher tolls, and raising gas taxes much higher, permanently."
How's about if we try drilling in Alaska first?
How does that relate to funding the cost of road building and maintenance?
Then, it's on to coal.
The two countries sitting on all the coal?
Until then, we punt and pay.
Anytime a writer uses the hoary phrases "fair share," "fair price," "fair burden," etc., its time to hold onto your wallet and check the Marxist credentials of the author...
Suspicious and unproven.
I know this guy casually.
His Marxist credentials are impeccable.
Well, its probably nitpicking on my part, but I recall it was The Interstate and Defense Highway Act or something along those lines.
Not just for John Doe to cruise along for vacationing purposes, but a comprehensive interconnected highway system for transporting troops and equipment, should the need arise.
The states essentially gave up the right-of-way and the feds were to maintain them. No possibility for the state to collect tolls on the interstate system. Thats how it was intended and proposed, as I recall it.
Another item to add to your list: When it comes to maintenance, commercial trucks cause most of the damage to roadways. Autos and SUVs just don't create much wear and tear. If we want to to create a pay-as-you-go system, this needs to be factored into the equation.
No, I think that the two countries with the largest coal reserves are the US and China.
Why would those benefits not also happen for a system where the users paid for the cost of the roads directly through, instead of through taxes?
Is their some particular advantage to taxing the public and government spending on roads?
True, but was that anything other than the usual political ploy to associate pork barrel spending with a popular cause?
Large numbers of troops and heavy military equipment can be moved by rail, and were during World War II.
An actual invasion of the US by land forces was implausible, given the nuclear arsenal available. Following a nuclear exchange, the system would likely be unusable anyway.
...says it all.
What would work better than putting toll booths up everywhere, would be a tax on IMPORTED oil. That would discourage imports and encourage domestic production.
Oil isn't really the problem these days. Refineries are.
All the refinieries in the world are working at 100% capacity. There's rarely enough consistent maintenance. Also, refineries are extremely dangerous and blow up on ocassion, even in the safest, most safety conscious refineries.
Bottom line: no one wants to build new ones here. Last new one built, I understand, was 25 years ago. NIMBY. And I can't say that I blame folks.
That leaves FOREIGN refineries. Who elese will build them? WE won't. So, not only is some of our oil foreign, but some of that refining of oil (ours OR theirs) is done in foreign countries.
It's a volatile business making all the different fuels: propane, butane, jet fuel, petroleum products for the megahuge cosmetic business, plastics, etc.
To carry your proposal even farther, we would have to tax ALL petroleum products refined abroad. That would include even the plastic wrapper on your DVD's.
That would co$t. Are Americans willing to pay even more for everything from petroleum products, just because...well, you get my drift.
But it's not the same. If the truckers paid the full cost for their use of the roads, more goods would move by rail, which is cheaper for heavy freight. Furthermore, by the socialist subsidy of long haul trucking, we make imported goods cheaper to haul from port to point-of-sale, and locally manufactured goods are disadvantaged.
If there had been a "Big Dig Toll Authority", which had to float bonds to finance it, and had to collect tolls to pay for the bonds, I believe that costs would have been better controlled. Otherwise the bond rating agencies like Standard & Poors and Moody's would have made their financing untenable.
Without the discipline of the capital marketplace, and with the ability to spread the cost overruns across the United States taxpayers coast-to-coast, there was no incentive to limit spending overruns.
I'm not sure whether there is a toll on the Ted Williams tunnel part of the Big Dig. If not, there should be. If there is, the US taxpayer should get a return of his capital.
Do you really think those high fuel taxes *only* pay for roads, in Europe? I'm doubtful, but honestly don't know.
And higher taxes on diesel, than gas, would effectively shift the maintenance burden where it belongs.