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Lexus Lanes and the Fairness of Toll Roads

Robert Poole
August 20, 2008, 11:33am

Via Steve Hymon at the LA Times:
One of the long-held arguments against congestion pricing or toll lanes is that they're not fair to low-income users. The tolls are the same for everybody and low-income earners get hit the hardest, so goes that line of thinking. In fact, pretty much every politician I spoke to in the San Gabriel Valley has raised that point when talking about the proposal to convert the carpool lane on the 10 and possibly the 210 freeways into toll lanes. Two local academics have concluded otherwise: tolls are a pretty fair way of raising money to build road capacity. In fact, they say, it's fairer than most other funding schemes. The study comes from Lisa Schweitzer, an assistant professor of policy, planning and development at USC, and Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning who heads up UCLA's Transportation Studies center. Taylor, in particular, has long been a vocal advocate of congestion pricing. The study has been published online in Transportation, an academic journal. Their study is based on the toll lanes on the 91 freeway in Orange County. The two authors found that medium- and high-income earners tend to use the lanes the most -- and therefore are the ones paying for the debt service on the lanes.
This research should go a long way to answer those who constantly portray HOT lanes as "Lexus Lanes." The question these people always ignore, when considering whether toll roads and toll lanes are "fair" is: Compared to what? The main source of highway funding in America is the gasoline tax–a regressive tax if ever there was one (meaning it takes a larger percentage of a poor household's budget than a wealthy household's). But as Schweitzer and Taylor point out in their study, in most California urban areas, local transportation sales taxes have become the other major transportation funding source, and those taxes are even more regressive. By contrast, congestion-based tolls are a model of fairness. First, they are optional–you only pay if and when you choose to use tolled lanes (unlike sales taxes you cannot legally avoid if you buy just about anything). Second, they are proportional to use: the more you use, the more you pay. Third, they respect the ability of people of any income level to make sensible choices. A working mother at a modest-paying job with two kids in day care will have occasions when a $5 toll saves her $10 or $20 in late fees. Most people–of all income levels–welcome having such choices, and public policy should make more such choices available to them. Reason Foundation's Research on Transportation and Tolls UPDATE: Len beat me by 3 minutes

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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