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Paying for Paving

Tax driving, not gas.

Aug 11, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 45 • By IKE BRANNON
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Tolling would also be more progressive, since the poor tend to use mass transit and are more likely to live and work in central cities. To be sure, progressives would seek to get more money generated from the vehicle miles fee allocated to mass transit, but there’s no reason to think they would oppose such a move.

The major stumbling block that has to be addressed before an ambitious Congress springs this on the populace is the privacy issue. A system that records when and where people drive will generate an immense amount of data, most of which we’d rather not let other branches of the government see.

Jim Harper, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and an expert on technology and privacy issues, thinks such a system could be created. He suggested that a workable system would need to destroy the data used to charge drivers shortly after they receive and pay their bill, and that the software would need to be open-sourced, so software engineers could verify that the system was indeed doing what it is supposed to be doing with the data.

Of course, convincing such disparate groups that this radical change serves their priorities would be no mean feat. And a small minority of recalcitrants could make such a transition impossible.

It is difficult to conceive of a government that struggles to deal with even minor, routine matters coming to an agreement on a fundamental change in how we fund most of our transportation system. But it’s not impossible to see people eventually warming to such a system. That is the normal course of opinion any time a government introduces a funding mechanism that operates akin to a genuine price system for roads. California did such a thing when it opened SR-91 in 1995, funded by a toll that increased with the road’s congestion. While it was greeted with widespread outrage, the emotion quickly dissipated as drivers across Riverside County began to appreciate the ability to avoid traffic.

And various congestion pricing schemes exist throughout Europe and Asia, nearly all of which quickly become welcomed by drivers. The supposedly statist countries of Europe have been much more accepting of market mechanisms to reduce congestion on the roads.

What’s true for Southern California and Europe doesn’t necessarily hold for the rest of the country, of course, but funding roads via a vehicle miles fee would work much better than what we currently have in place.

Meanwhile Congress continues to struggle merely to patch together the broken highway financing system a few months at a time. That no one can even broach a reform serves as yet another manifestation of a political process that is just as broken.

Ike Brannon, a senior fellow at the Bush Institute, is president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington.

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