Bacon’s Worst Fears Prove Well Founded

I was wondering if I was being too cynical Monday when I wrote that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s recommendations for financing Virginia transportation improvements were likely to be “driven by politics” rather than sound economics. I secretly hoped that he would prove me wrong. But sadly, the governor has confirmed my worst fears.

On his monthly radio call-in show yesterday, Kaine said he expects to present to the General Assembly in an upcoming special session a financing scheme that will, in the words of Jim Nolan with the Times-Dispatch, “likely have several components and not rely on simply one element to raise funds.” Then the governor elaborated (my italics): “You’ve got to kind of spread the pain a little bit and not have it just be in one area.”

Ah, the ol’ spread-the-pain approach to transportation financing — exactly the philosophy I found so deficient in the Republicans’ plan last year. Break up the taxes into little pieces and spread them around in the hope that nobody really notices. Of course, when nobody notices the tax, and payment of the tax bears no visible connection to how much people drive, nobody changes the driving habits that have pushed Vehicle Miles Traveled higher year after year. Great thinking, guys: Keep on raising taxes so everyone can do the same thing, the same way, as they’ve been doing it the past 50 years.

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  1. “Break up the taxes into little pieces and spread them around in the hope that nobody really notices.”

    Isn’t that precisely what tolling does? A little tax to drive here. A little tax to drive there. And you never really notice since your beloved big brother electronic tolling box ensures that the driver never sees the true cost. See MIT’s study of the issue

    I agree that the personal property tax, insurance and speeding ticket and parking ticket taxes should be eliminated and consolidated into a gas tax levy. Then you’d be closer to achieving what you state is your goal: clarifying the cost of driving so that people can make an informed choice regarding how much they’re paying and what value they get from their government.

    But is clarity the real goal, or is it just really a secret desire to punish drivers because of a personal animus against cars?

    I bet a sharp economist type could do a great correlation chart between real dollar GDP growth and Vehicle Miles Traveled. No invention has done more to give capital, labor and goods mobility It is the ultimate tool of capitalism.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Bob, I have no personal animus against cars. I drive a car, and so does my wife. We live in the suburbs of Henrico County. I have no desire to “punish” those who drive cars. I just don’t think we can continue, with oil prices at $120 a barrel, doing things the same way we always have.

    I do agree that a gasoline tax would be far preferable to a grab-bag of taxes. At least there is a partial connection between those who pay the tax and those who reap the benefits from transportation spending. But, as I’ve made clear, the gas tax is living on borrowed time as people shift to more fuel-efficient or non-gas powered vehicles. We have to devise a substitute.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    P.S. Bob, Tolls make the cost of driving very explicit. Drivers are reminded every time they use a toll facility. They are far more likely to modify their driving behavior as a result of a toll than they are as the result of a car registration fee.

  4. From the MIT study: “I walked around and asked people, ‘When you got off the highway, how much did you pay in tolls?’” Finkelstein says. “And almost everyone replied, ‘No idea–I used E-ZPass.’”

    I use someone else’s E-ZPass when I’m driving in California. I absolutely have no clue how much in tolls I rack up on the 241. Toll roads don’t want you to know, so it isn’t always clearly posted. On the other hand, I can tell you precisely how much I pay in registration and personal property tax because I wrote the checks.

    As for tolls being required because of electric and hybrid cars — yeah, we might as well stop worrying about roads because we’ll all be driving flying cars in no time. Viable electric cars are based on wishful thinking and outright fraud. If people’s hybrids use ever so slightly less gas — shouldn’t they pay less of a net tax for their saintly pro-environment habits? We don’t need an inefficient, wasteful and intrusive infrastructure for a problem that is solved by adjusting the levy to arrive at the desired dollar figure.

    The idea that improved gas mileage is starving the trust fund is nonsense, and refuted by the “Conservative” let’s toll everything proposal which showed no such dip in the trust fund. (Or, I should say, when properly adjusted to real dollars, it showed no dip in the fund.)

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    The GDP – VMT correlation is almost a spot on straight line. We already knw that the people who drive the least are poor people.

    Draw your own conclusion.

    Can we have GDP without VMT? Maybe, but we don’t know how yet.

    Can we have Gross Domestic Happiness without Gross Domestic Product?
    Maybe, but we don’t know how yet.

    Can we have a good environment without good economy?

    Probably not. Even those tribes that drive none and live closest too the earth, do considerable damage in the process.

    Actually I beleive that a grab bag of taxes is (partly) appropriate because roads have so many beneficiaries. That said, it’s a good idea to put all the user fees in one revenue vehicle, where they will be most felt and most seen. the overall level of user fees compared to the grab bag could invrease as well.

    But the toll idea is a terrible one. It has no worthwhile attributes at all that can overcome its inherent inequality and inefficiency. It is a wolf in sheeps clothing: a new tax that would smell as sweet by any other name.

    We already know that the proposed HOT will increase traffic, reduce car pools, increase trafffic on surface streets, and cause job centers to move. We ae going to pay good money for THAT?

    One of the primary purposes of tolls is demand management, yet we turn around and say that higher gas taxes won’t work because they will cause people to travel less.

    In every possible way you look at it, toll supporters have argued themselves into a corner with no escape.

    This is a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea tht has failed before and will fail again. Overall, it’s the stupidest thing ever heard of and somebody in authority ought to have the guts to stand up and say so.


  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    If tolls are such a bad idea, how come the CBBT “works”.

    I can accept an honest debate about tolls .. but those opposed need to step up and answer the CBBT question (as well as toll roads that are 30 years old).

    What about the CBBT… ????

    What about new tunnels in HR/TW?

    Powhite Parkway? Rt 288? Dulles Toll Road?

    What is the basis of your argument against existing examples of successful tolling?

    Should the CBBT not have been a toll road?

    now.. don’t stumble all over yerselves.. trying to answer first..


  7. By what criteria do you judge a toll road to be a success? As roads, you can drive on them and they get you where you want to go.

    The Dulles Toll Road was supposed to be toll-free and paid off by, I believe, 2014. It’s now infinitely tolled to pay for the two-people per hour who will be on the worthless Dulles metro extension.

    So, yes, Virginia’s toll roads follow the 18th Century British model of success: Lie to the public about how the tolls are just temporary and tax the plebs forever. Mission accomplished.

    The question I would ask is, has it cost the public more to build it as a toll road than not? Was it worth the increased deaths caused by the tollbooths? (see this from a pro-toll site) or see this video of an actual crash to see what I mean.

    There are 7.4 million registered vehicles in Virginia. There are 7.6 million people living in Virginia (5.4 million licensed to drive, but 24% of the 7.6 million are under 18, leaving ~5.8 million eligible to drive).

    So all that nonsense about “non-drivers” caters to 5% of the population, or the equivalent of setting statewide priorities to cater to a group the size of Prince William County. census data plus DMV stats PDF

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    CBBT Toll Road?

    success or not?

    Should the CBBT been built NOT as a toll road?

    re: “paid off” toll roads..or “free” roads…

    ummm.. what is the VDOT budget category called highway and maintenance for 1.6 Billion dollars…

    are we spending 1.6 Billion on existing “free” roads?

    gazooks… we’re taking folks gas tax and spending on roads.. that we’ve already paid for..

    no fair! once we “pay” for a road.. we should have to continuing to pay for it…

    maintenance is so… so… unfair…

    right? and just think..if the CBBT was not tolled.. the VDOT maintenance costs would be even higher….

  9. No particular opinion of CBBT. I occasionally use the Dulles road, never CBBT.

    VDOT spends $1.6b on maintenance, but VDOT maintains 58,000 miles worth of road. So that’s an average of $27,000 per mile per year. It covers resurfacing, hedge trimming, grass cutting (really), and keeping the traffic lights running.

    So let’s take this point and run with it. The tollers want to charge $1 per mile to drive on the high-traffic roads. Those roads would have average daily traffic of around 50,000 per day. That’s, um, two years’ worth of maintenance collected daily. Of course, it costs 40 cents to collect that dollar… Thanks to the absurd overhead, a lot of recent toll road projects will take 20 years to even reach a break-even point. (Assuming they don’t go bankrupt first)

    The paid-for tolling propaganda always seems to leave out those nasty little economic details. Follow the numbers…

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The CBBT is a toll road.

    You have strong opinions against toll roads and cite various reasons why they are the wrong solution.

    What is your opinion of the CBBT?

    How can you be opposed to toll roads and have “no opinion” about toll roads?

    consistency in your arugments and intellectual honesty are in play here.

    re: 50K AADT.

    can you give a cite for this number?

    re: maintenance costs –

    do you assume that maintenance costs are the same no matter whether it is a 600 series rural or an Interstate?

    re: 40 cents to collect a dollar

    are you talking about open road tolling via overhead gantries?

    can you provide a cite?

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Tolling in London is done via cameras. I think the contractors running the cameras take 60%. Speed cameras in the district have a similar overhead.

    Those overhead gantries are unbelievabley expensive. And it isn’t as if that system is totally automated. Credit card transactions appear to be mostly automated, but in maryland there is a huge credit card processing facility, humming with computers, and hundreds of technicians to maintain them, plus service reps to correct all the errors that get made.


  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’d be open to seeing some cites on the cost.

    What I’ve read indicates that the costs are substantially less than human-staffed toll plazas.

    It was the toll plazas that limited the spread of TOll roads.

    Once electronic means were developed, toll roads expanded.

    What you’re saying, in essence, is that the scanners are Walmart are expensive….

    yes.. they are.. but they are much cheaper than manually ringing up items.

    and of course.. this goes back to whether one thinks tolls are a legitimate way to pay for roads.

    because.. if you followed the gas tax money.. you’d also find “unbelievable” expenses also.

    Do you think paying for gasoline with a credit card results in any less card processing centers “humming” with computers?

    Paying for gasoline with a credit card that you slide in an electronic reader is “unbelievably expensive” compared to paying a toll with an electronic reader?

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