Tag Archives: Toll road

Should We Worry About Highway Subsidies?

I touched on this issue way back when I wrote about the gas tax, but I’d like to expand the thought.

One of the most common criticisms of auto infrastructure from transit and smart growth activists is that drivers don’t pay the full cost of roads – the gas tax and other associated fees have not been increased enough to keep pace with spending new construction and backlogged maintenance. Much of the money spent on highways comes from property taxes, which you pay regardless of if or how much you drive. Counter to this, you have folks like Randal O’Toole, who note that no transit agency in the country covers even its operating costs with fare revenues, let alone capital costs. Transit agencies don’t pay property taxes, but they run buses over roads paid for by those taxes. In addition, the federal government and many states have dedicated part of their gas tax revenues to transit, meaning that drivers subsidize transit.

Still Not User Fees

As I said in my post on the gas tax, I don’t see how transit activists can win under the “user fee” framework. Some, like Cap’n Transit, claim that transit would make money if drivers were forced to pay the full cost of driving. However, given typical farebox recovery ratios on US transit systems (about 25%-50%), I don’t see how that could happen. Assuming farebox recovery is currently 50%, an agency would have to either double the number of people on each vehicle, double the amount of money extracted from each rider, cut unit operating costs in half, or some combination of the three. (Note that just doubling ridership doesn’t cut it if you have to run additional vehicles, since that costs money.)

Realistically, it seems to me that a scenario in which a transit agency has 100% farebox recovery is a scenario in which low ridership routes are eliminated, low ridership stops are eliminated, off-peak service is reduced, and peak service fares are higher. Now, maybe you’re fine with that scenario, but you should back up, read your Jarrett Walker, and ask yourself what you’re actually trying to do with your transit service. Are you ok balancing the transit agency’s books by raising fares on people too poor to afford cars? Are you ok with stranding people who live on low volume routes? Are you ok telling your city’s late-night crowd to suck it up and pay for a cab?

Generally, though, the agency is being asked to provide some minimal level of service to all parts of the region, for some minimum span of service, regardless of profitability. In that context, it’s not consistent to expect the agency to be profitable. There are also many benefits that accrue to society as a whole that the agency can’t capture – for example, if someone chooses to ride transit instead of driving, there are benefits to air quality from less congestion. In that sense, we aren’t “subsidizing” transit, we’re making an investment in the public domain that ought to produce future public benefits exceeding the cost.

And here’s the thing: many of the same arguments apply to roads.

For example, implementing tolls or increasing the gas tax is only progressive at the crudest level of analysis. In general, transit riders are poorer than drivers, but there is huge variability within drivers. Within the driving population, these taxes might be regressive, since wealthier drivers can afford to live closer to work. Like low volume transit routes, it is expensive per capita to provide arterial roadways to rural areas, but we’ve decided that in our society everyone deserves some base services. We also expect roads to produce benefits to society that aren’t directly captured by the government agency in charge of roads – for example, when rubber-tire internal-combustion trucks became available, there was a large reduction in the amount of horse poop lying in city streets. (The memories have faded, so we don’t often think of the horse poop benefits of trucks nowadays.)

Public Services Framework

In fact, both roads and transit could be considered public services like police and public schools, and we certainly don’t expect the police department or elementary schools to fund themselves entirely from user fees.

In that case, why charge drivers anything for road use (or why charge patrons anything to ride transit)? There are two reasons to charge for public goods:

  • Negative externalities (in this case, mostly air pollution and GHG emissions)
  • Overuse (in this case, congestion)

With this framework, the gas tax serves both purposes: it imposes a base usage fee that discourages people from driving for no reason, and it taxes people in proportion to the amount of pollution they create. The gas tax should probably be increased nationally because of the high costs of air pollution and GHG emissions. Some states or metro areas might consider a further increase as a base congestion charge. Managed toll lanes, like exist on the 91 and the 110, should be implemented on a larger scale to help deal with congestion during peak periods.

Another nice feature of this framework is that it’s perfectly logical to charge drivers more than it costs to maintain the road if demand is very high. The surplus can be used to fund other parts of the transportation system. For example, New York charges very high tolls on the Hudson River bridges and dedicates the surplus to transit operations. It’s also reasonable under this system to charge wealthy Acela patrons more than it costs to run those trains, and subsidize other services.

It always seems like a pretty cynical argument to me when I hear transit activists argue that “drivers should pay the full cost of roads”. Under a counterfactual where highway user fees generated more than enough money to cover maintenance of existing roads, would they be arguing that the rest of the fees should be used on roadway expansion capital projects? Of course not. Taking roads and transit to be public services results in a more consistent argument.

What About Overbuilding?

Part of the argument is that if drivers had to pay the full cost of roads, we’d build less roads. True, and valid if your preexisting goal is building less roads. By the same token, if transit riders had to pay the full cost of transit, we’d be building fewer trophy streetcars and suburban LRT lines.

Overinvestment and misallocation of resources is a classic problem of public services. Cities with useless streetcars are no different than rural towns whose police equip themselves with tanks or cities that say they’re going to supply every student with an iPad. In other words, there is no substitute for good governance. While you certainly could curtail some of the abuses by going to a user-fee system, remember the compromises that go with that. Other countries have shown that competent public governance is possible.

However, the more I think about it, the more I’m in favor of getting the federal government out of the capital projects side of things. Our mainline freeway and rail networks are complete, and the federal government seems to make a lot of poor investment choices now that most of the good capital projects are complete. There’s definitely an equity case for some federal involvement in helping out poor states and cities with operating costs and vehicle procurement, and the federal government should help states and cities out by using its low interest rate to borrow, but should the feds be involving themselves in things like Portland’s streetcar extension or the 69 freeway? Probably not.

Are Roads a Public Good?

You could make an internally consistent argument that drivers should pay the full cost of roads if you think that roads are not public goods.

I’m not buying that argument for arterials and neighborhood streets, since having two competing road networks in a city would be a huge waste of land, like having competing gas or electric companies. If arterials and streets were privately owned, they’d have to be regulated like a utility, and you’re right back to the issue of competent governance.

The argument is believable in the case of limited access tollways, where it’s easy to control access at onramps and offramps, and easy to manage demand through variable tolls. If public arterials are available, no one needs to use the freeway. However, I think there are practical limits to that model as well, which I’ll address in a separate post.

The Right Argument for Tolls

Aaron M. Renn, aka The Urbanophile, has an article out today about the need for tolling in Rhode Island. There’s no doubt that things in the Ocean State need some work; I was on the 195 recently and saw some terrifying levels of spalling concrete like that seen in the picture of the Warren Ave overpass. Renn pitches tolls for facilities like the Sakonnet River Bridge, and VMTs, which he calls de facto tolls.

I’ve written before about how VMTs do not make sense and do not actually solve any of the stated problems, so I don’t have anything to add there.

However, the issue of traditional tolling is another good one to discuss, and I think Renn’s article runs into trouble there. First, while tolls solve the problem of inadequate funding, they do not solve the other major issues that Renn identifies: corruption and incompetence. Toll money can be wasted just as easily as gas tax money; it does not force the state to stop deferring maintenance. There is no substitute for building competent governing institutions, and evidence would suggest Rhode Island has a ways to go with that.

Beyond that, though, Renn uses the same faulty user fee logic that I wrote about in the context of VMTs. Renn says that “it’s intuitively fair for those who use something to pay for it”, an argument frequently heard from progressive writers who don’t care for cars. As I said, this is a disastrous line of reasoning for progressive causes, since transit users don’t pay for the entire cost of transit either. We don’t provide roads “for free” any more than we provide bus service or public education for free.

There is a logical framework with which you can make an internally consistent argument that highway users should pay the entire cost of highways, but transit users shouldn’t pay the entire cost of transit. If you think that highways are not public goods, but transit is a public good, then you’re good to go. But if roads are not public goods, then there’s no reason for the public sector to supply roads at all, and the solution would be to just privatize roadways. That argument seems plausible regarding limited-access highways, but certainly not with respect to local roads and bridges.

If you think that roads are public goods, there are still arguments in favor of tolling. I think there are two, one solid and one marginal. The solid argument for tolling is congestion charging as a way of capacity management. Congestion is a negative externality of driving, and drivers should pay for it. Unlike VMTs, congestion charges account for a negative externality that cannot be properly captured by the gas tax.

The marginal argument for tolling is that users of expensive facilities, like bridges and tunnels, should pay more. This is a marginal argument because it partly relies on the faulty user fee framework. People who have children that require special education use more expensive school facilities, but we do not make them pay additional school tax. The strength of tolls for expensive facilities is that it forces local users to pay for the facility, instead of allowing them to fleece distant taxpayers who may not be paying attention, which provides an incentive to control costs. Note that this is also partly a substitute for competent governing institutions.

So again, like the gas tax, there are good reasons for tolling, but you should always think twice about the user fee approach.

73 Tollway – Y U No Have Cars?

There’s been some discussion lately (or at least, when I meant to start this blog) on the underperformance of the Orange County Toll Roads. These roads were constructed in the early 1990s, in an ingenious scheme to create a system whereby the revenues from highways accrue to bondholders all over the world rather than the taxpayers of the county. Let’s leave the questionable wisdom of privately operated roads for another post, and return to the problem facing roads like the 73 tollway – not enough cars to service the debt through toll collections.

73tollway

The LA Times focuses on the high cost of driving the roads, and the competition from the improvement of alternate free routes, for example the 405 and the 5, which provide an alternate to the 73. This leads to discussion about what toll rate produces the optimum revenue – would revenue be increased by lowering the toll to draw more traffic? Or would revenue be increased by raising the toll, reducing traffic and maintenance costs but collecting more money from fewer drivers? Another issue brought up is that the roads were overbuilt at 6-8 lanes, when 4 lanes would have sufficed at the outset and resulted in lower bond payments.

Cap’n Transit surveys the situation and says that, in addition to the folly of improving competing freeways, the lack of cars on the 73 suggests that we shouldn’t always view HOT lanes as greenfield construction, or as additions to existing highways. That’s certainly true; you could make a great case for turning an existing lane into an HOT lane on the 10 freeway between Downtown LA and Santa Monica. And in fact, maybe I will make that case in a future post.

But there’s something else going on in the case of the 73. The authority that built the highway was created in 1986, and the 73 was completed in 1996. At the same time, the following conservation areas were established, on lands that directly abut the 73:

  • Crystal Cove State Park: 3,936 acres (1979)
  • Laguna Coast Wilderness Park: 9,488 acres (1993)
  • Aliso and Wood Park: 3,926 acres (1990)
  • Bommer Canyon: 16,000 acres (1982)

That’s a total of about 33,000 acres of land that was set aside and precluded from development, either not long before the 73 was built or during planning and construction. Now, maybe that part of the San Joaquin Hills is so unique and precious that all of that land had to be preserved. Certainly, between Malibu and Camp Pendleton, the PV Peninsula and the San Joaquin Hills are the only places where mountains cascade right down to the Pacific. The views are incredible. I’m not here to argue about that.

But I am here to argue that it doesn’t make sense to build a highway, and then prevent development on the land around the highway – development that might justify the highway’s existence. It’s not just that the 73 competes with free facilities like the 5 and the 405. The 73 is a vastly inferior facility if you are trying to get to the major development centers in southern Orange County, like Irvine.

Transit advocates have been quick to point out the underperformance of these roads as an argument against building new highways, but the same principle applies to transit. Between 1904 and 1920, several subway lines were constructed between Manhattan and the Bronx. As a result, the population of the Bronx increased from 200,000 in 1900 to 1,200,000 in 1920. But imagine what would have happened if large swaths of the rural Bronx had been declared conservation areas in 1905. There’d be no one riding the subways, and they’d look like a terrible investment. Regardless of what type of transpo you build, you need to allow land uses around the infrastructure to grow. Otherwise, what’s the point?