A Conservative Case for Truck Tolls

Republican lawmakers in Rhode Island are trying to pay for roads and bridges without new tolls on trucks.

"The real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels," says conservative blog Strong Towns. Photo: Transport PVD
“The real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels,” says Strong Towns. Photo: Transport PVD

James Kennedy at Transport Providence is wondering what’s so conservative about giving a free pass to the interests that inflict the most damage on roads, since everyone else will have to pay instead:

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.

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.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike PGH reports that air pollution levels on neighborhood streets dropped dramatically during an open streets event. And Seattle Bike Blog has an update on the city’s efforts to encourage biking and walking to school.

  • the problem is, this assumes self-identified “conservatives” think about transportation (or anything else) rationally. they don’t. driving is a tribal identifier: to be a “conservative,” you need to drive and be pro-car. there’s no underlying value judgment being made, it just marks you as part of the tribe.

  • CeeTee55

    I’d say a conservative counterargument to the idea of tolling anything on highways is the same one that liberals often use for free public transit..that it should be provided at no additional cost because the economic benefits to having it free outweigh any additional revenue increases made from farebox gains.

  • CeeTee55

    It may be a distinction without a difference, but I think it’s less that driving is a cultural marker than it is that *not driving* is a negative cultural marker, marking you as ‘not part of the tribe’. Interestingly, American conservatism’s disdain for public transportation is more recent than you might think. Richard Nixon was actually a supporter of Washington DC’s Metro subway system. The GOP’s platform at least gave lip-service to supporting and funding public transportation until the start of the Reagan era (1980 or so) when they basically implied that anything other than driving a privately-owned gas-powered vehicle on an asphalt road = Communism… though this could just be a case of the dog wagging the tail, support for public transportation may have been a goal of influential Republican politicians but not their core voting base (which was shifting more suburban, Southern, and rural by the 1980s), and the platform was updated to reflect this.

  • Matthias

    Do they though? ‘Free’ highways are a direct subsidy to the trucking industry, and one that other transport industries do not enjoy. Where they’re implemented, tolls raise revenue without hurting the economy, and can even the funding imbalance between highways and local roads.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    not true

  • Asher Of LA

    Tolling induces a shift to modes that don’t impose costs on the taxpayer, like rail.

  • Asher Of LA

    “Liberals” are much the same. LA is full of people who claim to be liberal and green and yet demand parking requirements, low density and thus car reliance.

    It’s not liberalism vs conservatism, neither one favors cars, ideologically speaking. It’s just perceived self-interest.

  • Asher Of LA

    Conservatism in America has an individualist streak – transit requires ‘collectivity.’ Public transit is typically highly subsidized by governments, and is home to public unions.

    Not casting aspersion on either crowd, but there are sources for the tension.

    But, cycling, walking and (to a lesser extent) private mass transit and public bikeshares do not have these issues.

  • That isn’t a conservative argument, that’s a liberal argument. Which is why liberals use it for public transit.

  • CeeTee55

    Well, it’s conservative in that it’s pro-business, which is considered a hallmark of American conservatism. Most conservatives are OK with business subsidies as long as they are spread out broadly enough (so that there’s no “picking of winners and losers”). Not saying I agree, but I think that’s the philosophy.

  • Rick

    Actually, they’re more rational than you think. Heritage Action, a very popular Tea Party “news” site, was against Congress “bailing out” the Federal Highway Administration. Currently inside Congress is the Grow America Act, which enjoys bipartisan support because it would allow states to privatize or toll freeways. Which conservatives obviously support since it means less government subsidies.

    Not all conservatives are NIMBYs, and not all Tea Partiers are morons. Atlas Shrugged’s entire plot was partially about rail modernization. There exists plenty of rightwing support for road privatization.

  • CeeTee55

    “…cycling, walking and (to a lesser extent) private mass transit and public bikeshares do not have these issues.”

    You’d think so, but they do, for more complicated reasons. With cycling and walking, I think these are seen as the transportation equivalents of ‘poverty foods’, with the same sort of stigma attached to them (why eat quinoa when you can have steak?). There’s also a kind of populist sentiment—most Americans nowadays drive and they drive for most things (commuting, trips to the store, travel), so the idea is that the government should devote resources to that, and not to anything else. The epicenters of cycling and walking cultures tend to be large cities (which tend to be less conservative) so any intrusions of these modes into a community that didn’t have them before may be seen as an invasion of big-city liberal values, etc, etc.

  • Asher Of LA

    That’s true – I was speaking from a perspective of pure principles. Your examples are the tribal reality 🙂

  • Joe R.

    There are differences here:

    1) Truly free public transit almost never exists, but there are plenty of free highways.

    2) The point of subsidies is not just to enable economic benefits but also to encourage shifting to modes which are less burdensome on society.

    3) It’s arguable in the case of subsidizing something as damaging to highways as trucks whether there’s even a net economic gain. And then you have the other negatives from trucking like pollution, deaths from collisions, etc.

    The bottom line is if you don’t directly or indirect subsidize trucking rail would be quite competitive. Most long distance freight would mode shift to rail. There might even be synergistic effects to this, like the freight railroads finally having an economic incentive to electrify. That plus the reduction in trucking greatly reduces fossil fuel use.

  • bbqroast

    I (dis?)agree.

    Trucks should NOT be tolled, cars SHOULD be tolled.

    Cars can be offloaded to public transit, and that should be a major focus point of any transport agency.

    Trucks genuinely need roads (as rail based shipping is rarely appropriate within cities), so they shouldn’t be tolled.

  • Kevin Love

    That “philosophy” translates as “if it puts money in my pocket, I’m for it.”

    There are other names for that “philosophy.”

  • Joe R.

    For the “last mile” you would be correct about trucks. However, local roads within cities are never tolled anyway. It’s mostly Interstate highways we’re talking about here. There’s no good reason freight couldn’t do most of the trip on rail, then transfer to truck from the freight terminal to the final destination. Long distance trucking is something which largely just shouldn’t exist, indeed wouldn’t exist if we charged trucks for the true cost of the damage they do to highways.

  • Rick

    It’s not only a very recent thing, but the right’s obsession with cars has faded as they become more antitax. Of course it’s not true across all conservative areas, but many conservatives are pushing for desubsidization of highways and roads so they can compete on a flatter level with other options.

    I’m certain people here will point to the rapid car-focused growth in Atlanta and Texas as examples against my argument, but keep in mind that even in those states their federal reps are pushing an antitax agenda that includes defunding many of the subsidies that cause car-exclusive development. Look at All Aboard Florida or Texas Central. That’s the future, even if it comes slowly.

  • Rick

    It gives businesses an incentive to operate as efficiently as possible so they can get the weight of the trucks they operate down. As it stands taxpayers are paying for a road system that is greatly damaged by semi trucks. Of course, many companies will choose to pass the costs onto the consumer instead. But better the latter because people can’t opt out of taxes.

  • Rick

    The main issue with that, is that it would lead to more freight congestion. I’m not against tolling highways at all, but the fact is that more people will use rail transport as a result.

    This can prove to be problematic, for example look at all the tieups on the Capitol Corridor. Though this is fixable if highway funding is moved to rail funding, so that both are at parity.

  • I guess you’re characterizing conservatism differently than I. To be honest, its probably closer to their actual policies. (although their true policies are probably even farther to the protectioning businesses, even specific ones side), but I think the values that most conservative voters hold are on the small government, less government side, which would be against large public projects like free highways, even if they benefit businesses (remember businesses should succeed on their own). The real conservative value is for toll highways, businesses, individuals, whoever uses them should pay their own way.

  • neroden

    “Conservative” in politics today has nothing to do with the dictionary definition of “conservative”.

    It’s more like what Lionel Trilling wrote:
    “But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with
    some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in
    ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

    I respect real conservatism, and I would argue that I am a real conservative; I want to conserve the old, keep what is best about it, change things slowly if at all, avoid waste and reward virtue…

    But I very rarely see real conservative thinking; instead I see these irritable mental gestures.

  • neroden

    It would take remarkably little rail funding to ease the capacity problems on our major rail corridors.

    Building a single track of rail is roughly comparable in price to building a single lane of expressway; slightly more.

    Due to the huge capacity crunch on the railways, a bunch of lines are currently being converted from single-track to double-track. Think about what that means. Most of our rail traffic is operating on the equivalent of ONE LANE ROADS. Not one lane each way — just one lane for both directions.

    A double-tracked railroad can carry a humungous capacity, and there are only a few rare places where we’ve needed to put in three tracks or four tracks. Four tracks costs as much as an expressway, but can carry hundreds of times more volume.

  • neroden

    What Jason said.

    There are a few actual thinking conservatives, but they seem very rare on the ground.

  • neroden

    But road privatization doesn’t work; it’s a proven disaster, because the private companies either fail to invest in replacement of decaying roads, or they go bankrupt. That’s why England nationalized all its toll roads back in the Victorian era (they had thousands of them).

    The model which works, worldwide, is toll roads owned and operated by the government.

  • Joe R.

    It would also help if states would stop levying real estate taxes on railroad rights-of-way. My understanding is the tax is higher if a track is there, giving the railroads an incentive to rip out any tracks not being used to full capacity. Sometimes when business picks up they have to re-lay these same tracks which never should have been torn out to start with.

    Railroads can also make the most of existing track if they were given a tax incentive to electrify. Electric locomotives get the trains over the line more quickly. That in turn means the same equipment can do more work.

  • SFnative74

    Sounds like they are promoting welfare for trucking companies.

  • SFnative74

    Conservatives should absolutely embrace cycling. It and walking are the epitome of self-reliance and do not require huge amounts of taxes to support. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLl5y9RZI7c

  • Asher Of LA

    Agreed :). Cheap, private, solitary, simple, resilient, quiet, enduring, even a bit shabby – everything a curmudgeon could love! Arch-conservative Russell Kirk called cars ‘mechanical Jacobins.’

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