Monday, November 17, 2008

Both a gas tax and a (smart) toll hike

If nothing else, Friday's decision by the soon-to-expire Turnpike Authority to jack Pike tolls through the roof has rendered a statement in favor of a gas tax hike restoration fit for polite company. Even Howie Carr recognizes the virtues of a higher gas tax. (From Dan Kennedy. I haven't listened to Howie since I stopped my Pike commute.)

But, it shouldn't be an either/or. We need an increase in the gas tax to more directly and equitably pay for road and bridge construction and maintenance ... and to help finance more mass transit. We need a smart toll hike to both provide additional revenue and to make better use of Pike capacity. And, we need virtual tolls on I-93 for the same additional-revenue and capacity-management reasons as on the Pike and because it would be more equitable.

Set aside the virtuous reasons for a gas tax hike. We need a gas tax hike because we can't afford to build and maintain our transportation infrastructure. If cars and trucks need more and better roads and bridges, then it should fall more directly on car and truck drivers to pay for them. It's little wonder that the state has no money for roads, bridges, and transit. The price of a gallon of gas has nearly tripled since 1991 (compared to the recent, relatively low prices), and the state's take has stayed the same: $0.21. If you were to simply apply the same effective rate as in 1991, the tax would be nearly $0.75. Imagine the shiny bridges and pothole-free roads the state could afford with more than three times the gas tax revenue. I would also suggest that a higher gas tax be distributed to municipalities for snow-clearing so that drivers bear that burden more directly, too.

If the state were to raise the gas tax, why bother raising tolls on the Pike or applying new tolls on 93? Two reasons. One, because those roads are expensive to maintain and there's a huge debt service on the Big Dig that's fair to allocate to Boston-area Pike and 93 traffic. Second, because there is congestion on both. The second reason demands not a simple toll hike, but a smart one: a peak-pricing scheme that will alleviate congestion at times of highest demand.

During heaviest use, there are two types of drivers in a Pike backup: those who are willing to put up with the traffic, but less willing to put up with a higher toll and those who would be willing to pay a higher -- even substantially higher -- toll if it would lead to a shorter trip time. It's a lousy allocation of demand. The second group is really inconvenienced by the first group, but there's no mechanism to keep the first group off the highway during peak times.

Raise the toll during the peak time and and the first group would avoid a toll hike by using the pike off-peak. (Some would use alternative routes, which is why a toll hike should also include mitigation to cities and towns likely to get cut-through traffic.) The second group would get the benefit of a premium toll. During rush hour, the Pike would be used by the people who value it most.

The benefit would be probably be even more dramatic on 93, where there is much heavier commercial traffic. It might be worth a lot more than the peak-pricing premium for a business owner to get his or her truck through Boston without the typical delay. That premium would help subsidize travel for those who are willing to go at a different time.

Higher gas tax? Absolutely. But, raise the tolls, too. Only not all the time.


Jodie said...

About the gas tax being shifted for snow clearing in other municipalities- out in "the sticks," snow clearing is about equal benefit to everyone, because they lack subway/rail and frankly, sidewalks in a lot of communities. Even people who don't drive need the roads clear for school buses, public safety vehicles, public buses, walking and biking. Unless they don't leave their homes pretty much ever, which is a whole other can of worms.

Anonymous said...

Three cheers for your thoughtful post. Finally someone thinking about solving a problem rather than just spouting off.

I like the idea of congestion or "peak period" pricing as a demand management tool, but you will get the usual arguments (which are not all necessarily bad) against it. The two most likely: 1) that the road is a public road and you shouldn't create a class of haves and have-nots; and 2) that employers will not allow people to have flexible schedules, so congestion pricing would fail, as just as many people will be on the road.

I don't necessarily subscribe to either of those arguments, and the tragedy of the commons problem on the roadways must be fixed. Congestion pricing is a way to address the issue.


Anonymous said...

My Account
Global Dashboard
Tag Surfer
My Comments
Edit Profile
Contact Support
Log OutMy DashboardNew PostEdit PostBlog Info
Random Post
Subscribe to blog
Add to Blogroll
Report as spam
Report as matureSzerlip’s BlogFront Page About ← Mortgage Rates High End Inventory Rising in Newton →
Reinstating toll at Exit 16 in Newton
November 11, 2008 · No Comments
Just to make sure the western suburbs pay for the Big Dig, Govenor Patrick is proposing the dismantling of Mass Turnpike Authority and placing roads east of 128 in the hands of Massport. In addition to this, all toll west of 128 would be removed with the exception of the toll plaza at Stockbridge which connects I 84 with Connecticut and I 90 with New York State. Well that seems fair doesn’t it? You can drive 50+ miles for free, but if you drive from Newton to Copley (about 5 miles) you will pass 2 toll booths. The biggest benefactors of the Big Dig are the North and South shore and yet they don’t pay any tolls on 93. Massport now runs the airport and seaport so you can see how that experience translates into assuming the role of the Turnpike Authority, which is already 2.2 billion dollars in debt. WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? How does running Logan and the Seaport qualify you to manage the Mass Turnpike? Where is the money coming from? If Patick wants Massport to assume responsibility for the Mass Pike (and keep it as a toll road) than they should also assume responsibility of all Mass highways. A toll booth at Exit 16 will increase pollution, traffic, and have a negative impact on the City of Newton. Tolls do put the burden on the people who use the highways, however, let’s eliminate all manned booths, build “open road tolls” as they already have in other states, and require a transponder. Since transponders clearly eliminate traffic back ups they should be free. Transponders save time, eliminate unnecessary employees, and reduce pollution caused by idling cars. The towns inside 128 should not bear the burden of all the highways in Mass. Why is driving the Mass Pike different than driving 495 or 128? What added benefits are we getting? All vehicle drivers should pay their fair share, Pike drivers also pay a gas and income tax that is used to maintain all of Mass highways, so why the extra fee assessed to them by way of tolls? Why don’t other drivers contribute to the Pike, since Pike drivers contribute to other roads? Let’s have one highway authority that has control of all Mass roads and distribute the burden evenly.

Categories: Uncategorized