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NYTimes.com Article: Driving Takes Its Toll

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  • rickrise@earthlink.net
    The article below from NYTimes.com has been sent to you by rickrise@earthlink.net. The economics of driving rickrise@earthlink.net /--------- E-mail Sponsored
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 4, 2004
      The article below from NYTimes.com
      has been sent to you by rickrise@....

      The economics of driving


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      Driving Takes Its Toll

      September 4, 2004

      This summer, Americans continued to rack up highway miles.
      Even while higher gas prices raised vacationing and
      commuting costs, most drivers acted as though this was a
      temporary glitch, complacently looking forward to the
      return of reasonable prices. For decades, Americans have
      grown too accustomed to cheap gas, buying S.U.V.'s and
      V-8's, driving more and more miles per capita every year.
      We are now more dependent on imported oil than ever before.
      But is there any viable alternative? Our own history offers
      us a possible solution.

      Starting in 1916, the federal government dispensed millions
      of dollars in highway grants to states, without collecting
      a penny from consumers of the new highways. There was no
      federal gas tax, and tolls were banned on the new roads.
      But desperate for cash and pressed to pay their share of
      road-building expenses, states tried to pass on some of the
      costs to drivers.

      At first this was only through state gas taxes. But these
      levies were effectively limited by lobbyists from auto
      manufacturers, oil companies, tire makers, highway
      engineers and road builders - all of whom wanted to
      increase car use as much as possible. With this source of
      revenue capped, some states turned to toll roads.

      When Pennsylvania announced plans to build a toll-financed
      turnpike in 1937, Washington gasped. If other states
      followed Pennsylvania's lead, then federal bureaucrats
      would lose the control they had enjoyed for more than 20
      years. They tried to squash the project, issuing
      pessimistic traffic forecasts to scare away lenders. But
      the Pennsylvania Turnpike was built anyway, and was hugely

      Within a year, New York, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois,
      Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts entered the toll-road
      business. A decade later, when the Eisenhower
      administration was preparing the Interstate highway
      legislation, even more states - New Jersey, Colorado,
      Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Texas - had
      joined the movement. It was clear: drivers understood that
      tolls were a fair way to pass on the high costs of
      road-building to highway-users, in direct proportion to how
      much they drive.

      But despite its proven viability, this alternative became
      the proverbial road not taken. The Interstate legislation,
      as enacted in 1956, put a stop to new toll-road
      construction, and we instead proceeded with a socialized
      transportation system, available to the consumer at no
      charge, mostly paid for from general revenue. Toll-road
      construction ceased, and with the exception of a handful of
      projects, all new highways built since have been freeways.

      There is a mistaken notion that American drivers pay for
      their roads through gas taxes. Actually, even though states
      collect gas taxes and a modest federal levy was imposed to
      pay part of the Interstate expenses, the total of these
      charges never amounted to more than one-third of highway
      costs. Such taxes, adjusted for inflation, have actually
      decreased, and efforts to increase them are politically
      risky, even though each 1-cent rise in the gas tax costs
      the average driver less than $8 a year. In practice, our
      roads and highways have been underwritten by general
      taxation. With gas taxes and tolls capped by effective
      lobbying, this annual subsidy has grown, amounting to
      billions of dollars annually.

      With driving so generously subsidized and the true costs
      hidden, Americans have driven more and more miles each

      Now we need to reconsider the road not taken. We must stop
      encouraging over-dependence on oil by under-pricing our
      roads and hiding the true costs of highway driving. Of
      course, to impose new gas taxes on top of the recent spike
      in prices may be politically impossible. But if oil prices
      drop, we should be ready to raise gas taxes. In the
      meantime, we should expand the use of tolls to finance

      The toll roads built in the 1940's and 1950's still exist,
      although some have been converted to free highways. But
      instead of removing tolls from these roads, as is
      occasionally suggested, we should go in the other
      direction. All of our major Interstates, across the
      country, should have tolls that are high enough to defray
      the full costs of building and maintaining the highway
      network and also high enough to make us change our driving

      We don't have to bring back the frustrating traffic
      bottlenecks at old-fashioned tollbooths now that the
      logistics of collecting tolls have been greatly simplified
      by systems like E-ZPass, FastLane and SmartTag. But by
      permanently raising the artificially low cost of driving,
      we could encourage people to drive fewer miles and to place
      a higher value on fuel efficiency, ultimately reducing our
      dependence on imported oil.

      Instead of letting drivers onto our expensive, world-class
      highway system free, we should charge a fair price by
      imposing more and higher tolls, and raising gas taxes much
      higher, permanently. Otherwise, our insatiable need for
      petroleum will continue to distort our foreign policy, to
      undermine the stability of our economy and to damage the

      Owen D. Gutfreund, the author of "20th-Century Sprawl:
      Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape," is a
      professor of history and urban studies at Barnard College.



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