I’ll admit it, I used to avoid tolls.
I remember on drives from Philadelphia to points south, there was a toll booth at the Delaware/Maryland border that could be avoided by getting off at the prior exit, paralleling the highway for a few miles, and then getting back on. For this, I saved a few dollars, but more than that, I felt immeasurably smug, like I had gotten one over on someone.
Unfortunately, the person on which I had gotten one over was myself.
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Someone has to pay for something somewhere
We all feel poor. We all are feeling squeezed from one way or another. And I’m learning that this surprisingly has nothing to do with how much money you have. If you are poor, you have trouble with the price of necessities. If you’re wealthy, you have issues with taxes. Either way, you’re feeling the squeeze from somewhere.
Because we feel poor, we try to find ways around having to pay for things. This can run the gamut from understandable penny-pinching to questionable ethics.
But it is a natural law that we must pay for what we use, and if we don’t pay for what we use, then someone else must be paying for it. We ignore this natural law at our peril.
Freeways aren’t free
Most highways in the United States are free of charge to drive on. This was because when the Interstate Highway system was designed in the 1950’s it was deemed that a free highway system was in the national interest. To enforce this, states were prohibited from collecting tolls on roads paid for with federal money (a stipulation that is mostly still in place today). A few highways, mostly in the northeast, have tolls on them, mostly due to predating the Interstate Highway system.
Now, back in the day when we believed in funding the government to do its job (rather than starving it of funds and then wondering why it wasn’t working right), we could have these federal programs that were at least vaguely sustainable. Not that our road system has ever paid for itself, but we’d been able to sweep that problem under the rug for a long time.
This has become more problematic as revenues have dried up and maintenance costs have soared. In short, we have built a road system and are now not paying for it.
This should shock exactly no one. We primarily fund our highway system through a gas tax, but this tax has been a constant figure for twenty years. As costs rise (and all costs rise), the purchasing power of the gas tax goes down. So net revenue is going down.
To say nothing about how transportation is getting more fuel efficient. When you drive an electric car, you pay $0 in gas taxes. So you are not paying your fair share of usage.
Which brings us to a usage tax. Remember the argument above that we must pay for what we use. If we don’t use something, then we don’t need to pay for it. And a tax on gasoline is not directly coupled to usage of a highway system.
But tolls are.
Tolls are the definition of a usage tax. Drive on the highway? Pay for it. Don’t drive on the highway? Don’t pay for it. Easy
Now there are at least two problems with this system:
- Questionable accountability. Toll roads are usually maintained by interesting public/private hybrids called public authorities which means that they can act like private business (with resulting lack of accountability) but with all of the advantages and protections of being a state agency. And even worse, toll roads are starting to be privatized, which means the need for profitability is forced on to infrastructure that is designed for the public good. I would much more support that tolls be paid directly to the federal government, and not in private companies, especially foreign-owned companies like is in the case of the Indiana Toll Road.
- Everyone uses the highway system, whether they drive or not.
And that is, unfortunately, the problem with tolls. Given the amount of goods that travel on the highway system (your Amazon delivery, the box trucks that stock the warehouses for the stores you shop at, etc.) it is short-sighted to say that you are only using the road when you are driving on it. You are using the highway right now, as you read this. (Hopefully not literally.)
Now, tolls are certainly a good start. And it’s not hard to see that when tolls are levied on highways and bridges, the structures are almost always better maintained than their free brethren. (A good example picked from my personal experience is I-80 across eastern Pennsylvania when compared to I-76/276, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Last time I checked, the former was a pot-holed mess, while the latter was smooth and a dream to drive on.)
Which is why I pay tolls on roads where they have them, and pay them gladly. And also support tolls in situations where revenue is needed. I know that I’m not fully paying my fair share when I pay tolls, that we all owe more than we’re paying. But at least by paying tolls, I’m doing at least a small part of what needs to be done to fund our transportation system. Which serves all of us and is an unequivocal public good.
Maybe, if we all paid directly into the highway system whenever we drove on roads, we’d start to wonder more about whether maintaining all these highways and building new ones is a good use of our limited resources, both economic and natural. But that’s a discussion for another time.
But enough about me: how do you feel about tolls?