Tolls suck. We might need them anyway.

Want to keep tolls out of Connecticut? It’s time to face some tough questions.

The raucous debate about tolls occasionally simmers down, believe it or not, leaving Connecticut residents with an hour or two for recreation and leisure. Many nutmeggers will pass the time by scrolling through (but not actually watching) content on Netflix; some will take the opportunity to rest their thumbs as they anticipate their next battle over tolls on Facebook.

The thoughtful citizen may choose instead to examine the central paradox that fuels these debates and also prevents their resolution: we want great roads and we want them free.

Let’s step back and look at the big picture. In Connecticut, transportation infrastructure expenses are part of the general budget, so we put all of our revenue into one big pile and use that same pile to pay for all of our expenses. We do this because we accept that transportation infrastructure is a public good: we all benefit from it so we all pay for it.

A modern overhead toll collection system on the Atlantic City Expressway

But there are people who use this infrastructure more than others. People who drive alone in a private vehicle for their 80-mile commute on Connecticut roads shouldn’t be subsidized by people without a car, for example. We know intuitively that those people should pay more, so we collect revenue in a more equitable way by adding a user fee. It wasn’t feasible to charge people for the number of miles they drove, but everyone used the same fuel for the journey (literally). We decided to tax gasoline consumption because it roughly accounted for the number of miles each person was driving on our roads.

Not anymore. Gasoline tax revenue is down because cars are more efficient and we use less gas per mile traveled. Meanwhile, the cost of transportation infrastructure hasn’t changed; if anything, it’s rising faster than ever. Experts predict gas powered vehicles won’t even exist by the middle of the century, but we will still need roads and bridges for vehicles that don’t use gasoline.

Gasoline consumption is no longer a good proxy for miles traveled, so people are paying less to put the same wear and tear on our roads. Any reasonable person can acknowledge the math has changed, so why aren’t we willing to revisit the equation?

So here’s why I’m skeptical of people who complain about tolls: they’re usually the same people who complain about taxes. They expect good transportation infrastructure, but they oppose using tolls or taxes to pay for it. And when they become aware of this paradox, they shift the focus of the debate to the failures of government in general.

It’s fine to criticize our government, but we must criticize with clear intentions and defined purpose. We can’t expect government to get better if we conceal or ignore the underlying public policy questions.

A toll plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike circa 2006. (Courtesy of freakapotimus)

The next rational step is to revisit our initial assumptions, knowing that every public policy decision will have intended and unintended outcomes. What unintended outcomes were revealed in the wake of our current policies? How can we address or prevent those from happening in the future? What are our shared goals for transportation specifically and freedom of movement generally? What changes should we anticipate in the next 10, 25, 50 years? What effect will those changes have on our infrastructure, and how will our policies address them?

And then for that equation. Did we get the balance of taxes and user fees right? Should we address the shortfall by adding a second proxy or completely replacing the existing one? Should we isolate the revenue stream so those funds can only be used to pay for transportation infrastructure? Are we accounting for side effects on quality of life, time spent in traffic, environmental consequences, and other externalities?

We have enough voices lamenting the failures of government; we need voices discussing questions like these. We need the time and patience to explore the details.

Above all we need people willing to admit that tolls suck — and we might need them anyway.