A Rocky Transition to a New Transportation Finance Regime

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A number of states are considering funding transportation infrastructure with "direct pricing" on the use of roads -- e.g. by increasing the prevalence of tolling and instituting taxes on "vehicle miles traveled". If coupled with relief for low-income drivers, direct pricing has the potential to adequately and fairly fund transportation while at the same time creating incentives to reduce driving and its corresponding ills (e.g. traffic congestion, environmental damage, and excessive wear-and-tear on the roads).

But a new development in the already drawn-out debate over Pennsylvania's plan to institute "direct pricing" (i.e. tolls) on its Interstate 80 highlights some serious equity issues involved in making the transition to this form of transportation finance.

A national trucking organization this week announced its opposition to the tolling plan, instead offering its support to a ten cent gas tax hike to raise the money Pennsylvania needs. The reasons for their opposition provide some very useful insights into the equity issues associated with a transition to a direct pricing regime.

While tolling every road could distribute the obligation for funding transportation across all drivers, singling out specific roads for tolls disproportionately affects those people who regularly travel on those roads. After all, these people continue to pay gasoline taxes, vehicle registration fees, inspection fees, and various other charges dedicated to funding transportation. While the revenue from all of these other taxes and fees is being sent all over the state to fund various projects, drivers who rely primarily on tolled roads for their commute (as well as businesses who rely on those roads to transport their goods) are forced to pick up their own tab at the tollbooth. As the trucking industry argued, what the state needs are "alternatives that make all Pennsylvanians responsible for paying for our roads, not just a certain segment."

Pennsylvania has to some extent attempted to minimize the impact of these tolls on frequent users of the road by proposing to let drivers with the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system installed in their cars travel some short distance before tolling kicks in. But this benefit would not help those who take longer trips down I-80, nor would it help the trucking industry, which is excluded from this benefit. Much of the responsibility for paying tolls would therefore fall on out-of-state travelers and trucking companies. That is certainly appealing to Pennsylvania lawmakers seeking to please their constituents.

But some of the burden would also fall on those living closest to I-80. And in any case, is there any reason why I-80 travelers (Pennsylvania residents or otherwise) in general should be contributing more to transportation than users of other roads? As tolling continues to be gradually implemented in a piece-meal fashion, look for more equity concerns of this sort to arise.

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