20.9.17

PRICES FUNCTION TO ALLOCATE DEMAND.

The salaries of some government officials ... it's the Highway Department I'm looking at today ... depend on them ignoring reality.  The latest foolishness, raising the registration fee on electric and hybrid cars and trucks to collect in one lump sum what they're not collecting at the pump.  Kea Wilson for Strong Towns goes after Missouri, but the same foolishness is infecting Wisconsin lawmakers.  I can't make this stuff up.  "If what we want are safe roads that we can afford to repair, why on earth would we incentivize drivers to buy gas guzzling vehicles—which skew towards the heaviest vehicles most capable of causing extensive road damage—rather than light, fuel efficient vehicles that might help keep that pavement intact for longer?"

The reality:  registration fees and excise taxes don't even come close to covering the full cost of roads, and a reality-based accounting might lead to the highway commissioners choosing to close some roads, or let them revert to cattle paths.  Missouri might be a good place to start.  "Missouri has the 7th largest number of highway miles in the nation and the 46th lowest revenue per mile for maintenance, mostly because our largest source of funding depends on a bottom-of-the-barrel gas tax of just 17 cents per gallon."

But sticking it to the metrofexuals might appeal on some gut level.
It’s a radical thing, to re-imagine the world you live in, especially if that world is made of highly permanent concrete highway ramps that you can sail onto without ever paying a toll, just like you’ve done your entire life. It might be even more difficult to reimagine this world for a member of the working poor who has no choice, it seems, but to drive alone every day in their busted SUV that was the only car they could get, just to get themselves between their three jobs that barely allow them to make make ends meet. From that perspective, of course you’d want the snob with the fancy limited edition Tesla to pay more at the DMV. Low income drivers need those roads to survive. And if they have to pony up even a penny more, they won’t be able to make rent.

But pause for a minute, and look beyond that knee-jerk fear, and you’ll find that the solutions our DOTs are offering us might make life even worse for that poor driver, and for all of us. The hefty registration fee on the Nissan Leaf might patch a budget pothole for a day, but it won’t address the yawning chasm as the rest of our overbuilt road network continues to crumble—and meanwhile, we just incentivized more heavy, gas-guzzling cars to get on the road and accelerate the problem even faster.
That "need the road to survive" is also the argumentum ad misericordiam that precludes tolling.  Never mind that tolling permits the analogue to farebox recovery plus it's flexible enough to give people incentives to change the timing of their trips.
We could keep the gas taxes in our cities, where the land tax per acre actually pays for most of the limited asphalt we lay down. But when we look to fund a highway, why not consider road tolls over taxes, especially on premium fast lanes, which would establish a common-sense feedback loop that would encourage people to drive less and make sure the long-road truckers who damage our roads most are paying more of the bill? And in the city, why not look into a tax on vehicles miles travelled rather than on gasoline?

In both instances, long-travelling poor drivers would have to pay more, but it wouldn’t be any more brutal on them than our current system, which does nothing to disincentivize the constant road construction and extended development patterns that put that poor drivers’ three jobs miles and miles apart from one another in the first place. And while we’re at it, we could take small, incremental steps to make our development pattern more dense and human-scaled, so we wouldn’t have to pour so much money and debt into propping up a road system that simply doesn’t, and will never, create enough wealth to sustain itself, and makes a lot of us pretty miserable in the process.
Tolling might also induce substitutions, starting, for instance, with ride-share drivers soliciting commuters. Yes, you might have to break up the bus cartels along the way.

Or perhaps transit authorities might be willing to add services and extend routes, as the substitutions have the potential to make full farebox recovery of costs a thing.

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