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For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

The Rhode Island GOP has again released a plan it says will nix the need for tolls. As I've made clear elsewhere, I'm a toll supporter, but the specifics of the GOP proposal are not all bad. Quoting from The Projo:
The plan is not without controversy. The funding sources that would be tapped include a $3 million annual cut to the state's film tax credit program and $500,000 annual cut to Twin River's marketing revenues. Morgan called both examples of "corporate welfare." 
The group also proposes taking revenue from DMV fees that currently flows into the general fund and redirecting the money for bridge repairs. The proposal calls for $24.3 million from DMV fees in 2017 and grows to $59.7 million by 2026. 
There's also a $4 million cut to the General Assembly's nearly $42 million budget. Morgan declined to provide specifics on what should be cut, but she held up a list of the Assembly's employees and said there are too many people working for a part-time legislature. 
Another $300,000 would be cut annually from the Medical Advisory Board's budget. The board has three staff members. Morgan said the board only meets every two months, and those staff members' duties could be shifted to other full-time staff in the Workmen's Compensation Court.
When it comes to tolling, good policy doesn't necessarily fall on ideological lines. Some of the specifics of these proposals would be needed to understand if they're worth our time--e.g., what exactly are we cutting from the Statehouse budget? Would that affect things like transparency, research, etc.? Would cutting from the Medical Advisory Board have an adverse effect on processing of disability hearings? These are questions beyond my realm. Other parts of the proposal should flat out be embraced. We shouldn't be paying taxes to advertise a casino. The fact that "corporate welfare"--a Ralph Nader-coined term--is in the regular lexicon of the Rhode Island Republican Party is a serious sign of sanity.

It is also worth noting that many Republicans in top leadership in Rhode Island have openly embraced things like the proposed boulevard conversion of the 6/10 Connector, citing cost, livability, and environmental concerns. Many around the country would be happy to have such ideas seeing such a broad, bipartisan hearing.

I would contend, as the GOP does, that for many highway projects we should not be extending ourselves into debt service. But that advice cannot be all encompassing. For many of the bridges in question, we've allowed the repairs to fall so far behind that to delay them further will cost more than the debt service on fixing those bridges now. The GOP proposal still calls for a revolving-fund approach to addressing bridge repair, and given the overwhelming nature of the disrepair we face, that is not currently possible.

That does not mean, on the flip side of that equation, that many of the debt-shunning policies that the GOP prefers are the wrong course. What it means is that we need to prepare in order to be in the place to do those things.

One way we can assess the usefulness of a piece of infrastructure is to think of how much it costs, how much wealth it produces, and what people are willing to pay for it. Anti-tollers are saying that the price they've set is zero.

People will respond that we pay for roads through gas taxes. That's only partially true. Road infrastructure is paid for in this country through a variety of means, and only about half of road cost is covered by gas taxes. That is both a function of the gas tax being low, and our spending being too high.

Gas taxes also have the fault of charging higher fees to users of local roads, and then essentially turning much of their funding over to highways, interchanges, and bridges. This is one reason tolls make sense: assigning a cost to going on a particular piece of infrastructure is more optimal than having a kind of gas tax slush fund that RIDOT can use at its discretion. The tolling requires, by federal law, that those bridges that are tolled are the only ones that can be paid for. This is truly GOP thinking if ever there was such a thing.

Tolls also make sense because they charge the users that use the most, in terms of weight. The proposal to toll trucks comes in the face of the fact that a single truck does 10,000 as much damage to roads and bridges as one car.
Says libertarian blog Strong Towns, "The real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels."

All sorts of scare tactics have come forward about the effect of tolls. It's true, in a matter-of-fact sense, that truckers will try--to the extent that the market allows--to pass the cost of tolls on to consumers. But not to toll is also to pass that cost, just through some other means. Even the worthiest of cuts proposed by the GOP have at their heart a kind of bait-and-switch tactic that you would expect conservatives to dislike (So, wait? Because the government made an unaccountable corporate welfare decision in favor of the movie industry or the casino industry, that means that we can just take that money back and put it to bridges? Who said I want bridges either . . . ). The appropriate thing to do if we repeal corporate welfare--which we should--is to put that money into a tax cut, and then start the conversation about roads on fresh ground. Let's not muddle the issue.

It might seem like wanting drivers to pay a cost to cross a bridge is anti-car--and look, if anyone in the neighborhood deserves that accusation, maybe it's me--but it's really not anti-car at all. The Swedes put together a frankly capitalist mechanism of managing their road congestion, which was to charge the equivalent in kroner of $1 at rush hours. The results were that drivers could get where they wanted to go. The Swedes are one of the wealthiest and one of the most equal countries in the world, so by no means were people avoiding the road because of the $1 charge being too expensive. The cost was minimal. What was really going on is the classic conservative principle that when people pay something--anything--for a service, they use that service differently. Most voters hated the idea of congestion pricing when it was proposed in Sweden. The voters saw the results, and now 70% support it. 

The GOP proposal treats our road system like a buffet, when what we need is a la carte.

The tolls proposed are for trucks, not drivers. But a man can dream! We should have tolls for trucks to cover costs (hey, by the way, they only cover about $0.50 on the $1 of the damages trucks do to roads, so the trucks are still getting a deal). But we should also use tolls as congestion charges. If we ever evolve enough as a society to do that, the full funding taken by congestion charges could be set aside, by law, and given as tax dividends. We could debate about how those dividends would be divided. Would it be just equally to every person in the state? Would we put a bit extra to people below a certain income? Would it be per car (which would favor families that owned two cars)? Would we put part of the funding to transit, in order both to improve the experiences of drivers, as well as to provide a safety net from tolling? Those are all open questions. The point is that tolls on trucks are about trying to close (a bit) of the cost that trucking puts on our road system, while congestion pricing as a concept could be revenue-neutral and all about having a more sensible use of scarce resources.

In short, while the GOP proposal is a worthy starting point for a conversation, it's not at all the end. We need to pass the toll proposal. But we can also use the GOP proposal as a way to talk about what other choices we can make about budgeting, for our roads, and all manner of other things.


1 comment:

  1. A reasonable analysis, but bottom lines for me is to still support the tolls.
    The GOP plan is largely for politics, appealing to the anti-tax (and fee) crowd that has already helped get us into this mess. It has no assurance of permanent funding needed to plan effectively, it double counts reg fees that are already being transferred to RIDOT. It will do nothing to build programs for bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure. It fails to have enough up-front money needed to prevent more expensive future repairs.

    It is proper that big trucks that do much of the damage help pay for needed repairs, and this includes out of state trucks cutting thru our state. RI companies pay tolls in many other states (MA, NY, NJ, NH, ME etc) and it seems reasonable some from those states should help pay for our roads too.