Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Drivers are paying tolls at gas pump
Yes, people who use the roads ought to pay for them, but the solution of high-tech tolls suggested in the July 31 P-I ("Make tolls part of the transportation fix" by Chris Weber) constitutes tokenism, not payment. One had higher hopes for a contribution from an economist on the transportation mess.
First, note that people who drive already are paying for road-building because the 18th Amendment of the state constitution limits the use of gas taxes to highways. The gas pump is the toll booth. Drivers are just not paying for other public services, since motor fuels are exempted from state sales tax. One wishes our learned academics had called for a reversal of this practice. None of the other states cited allow this exemption.
The doubling in the number of cars projected over the next 20 years is what we need to address. Tolls won't do that. Tolls will never scratch the surface of the immense costs of construction, let alone maintenance, pollution mitigation, environmental rehabilitation and, of course, diplomatic and military operations in pursuit of oil. These costs are dismissed by economists by and large as "externalities." The elements that are not externalities are mostly those captured in the brief event of purchasing gasoline and automobiles (and include monopoly profits to OPEC and oil companies).
What is needed is what J.K. Galbraith called for more than 30 years ago -- a national public transportation agency with authority to design, develop and implement a comprehensive solution to moving people and freight. It should be an agency with the ability to assign costs and capacity in a rational manner. This is no less pragmatic than Weber's suggestion.
For the record, in addition to keeping fares low, it will be necessary to increase capacity if more drivers are to opt for public transit.
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