Toll It All

I'm on record as liking Governor Rendell's plans to raise additional
money for roads and transit across the state. His plan to toll I-80
for transit is, unsurprisingly, being met with fierce opposition in
the northwest part of the state, with the locals there predicting doom
and gloom to the economy if this plan goes through:
Importantly, the case is not only that transportation costs will
increase and get passed on, but that trucks will divert from I-80 to
local roads that were not meant to bear heavy truck traffic. It's a
dilemma: when you toll a road, you create incentives for drivers to
avoid it, and when it comes to lumbering big rigs, that avoidance has
major consequences for where road wear and tear takes place.

Thankfully, technology is coming to the rescue:
Last year, Portland, Oregon equipped a few hundred vehicles with GPS
devices in order to track vehicle miles traveled. If this catches on
in the next ten years or so, we could eliminate both tolls and the gas
tax, both of which are inefficient at their stated purpose of
assigning road costs to the users that cause wear and tear to them:
tolls because they distort driving patterns by only being feasibly
collectible on main highways, and the gas tax because higher fuel
efficiency and the political difficulty of raising rates has meant a
greater gap over time in what is collected and what is needed.

Coming from California, where we call our big roads "freeways," the
thought of paying for every mile you travel may be as foreign as
paying for every website you visit. But a vehicle mile tax is a far
more efficient and equitable way than tolls and gas taxes to extract
from us users the money needed to pay for the maintenance of the roads
the government has subsidized for us to use. Hopefully, as the
technology improves to the point where this is feasible on a mass
scale, the argument has been refined to the point that it is more
palatable to all of us.


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