May 29, 2006

Do Toll Highways Diminish Public Safety?

An interesting op-ed in USA Today asserts that the tendency of state governments to jack up tolls on state highways is endangering public safety. The argument, made by Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is that many people-- especially low-income drivers-- will respond to higher tolls on major highways not by driving less, but by driving on slower and more dangerous secondary roads:[
T]he losers are, as usual, the poor, the young, the elderly, the small-business owner, and the independent trucker. These folks will not be scooting along in the express toll roads; they will be dodging oncoming traffic and fighting to stay in their lane on the undivided and unsafe - but no-cost - highways.
Hall isn't arguing that it's a bad thing to make driving more expensive; his point is that tolls make one form of driving more expensive than others. And since (Hall asserts) secondary roads are inherently more dangerous because they have multiple access points and are less well-maintained, this is a bad outcome from a public safety perspective.

His policy solution is to fix the secondary roads, not to equalize the cost of driving on good and bad roads. But in a political climate where lawmakers (as Hall recognizes) frequently can't summon up the courage to pay for needed infrastructure improvements, the attainable solution might be to impose user fees on drivers in a way that doesn't encourage them to drive on lousy roads. A higher gas tax fits the ticket, since the tax is the same no matter where you choose to drive.

Of course, the million-dollar question right now is whether it's "fair" to impose higher costs on drivers in general. More on this question here.


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