AZ Daily Star: Road builders operate on different planet than taxpayers who pay for them!

State must decide how to finance road construction
Published: 03.28.2006
Arizona Daily Star

Our view: Some suggest users pay tolls, but all Arizonans should share the costs
Better communication is required between those who build our state highways and the people who set income levels and hours for ordinary workers.

At the moment, it appears the road builders and their economists are operating on one planet and the consumers, or people who pay for the roads and use them, are on another.
The only thing the two groups have in common is that neither knows where or how to get the money to pay for new highways.

Road builders know that it takes an ever-increasing amount of money to build highways and transportation innovations. Highways have typically been built with gas taxes, but, as cars have become more fuel-efficient, many consumers buy less gas and pay less in taxes. Hence, a new source of money for roads is needed.

Conservative economists believe the users should pay for the highways they drive. That means tolls. The idea of building toll roads has traditionally been anathema in Western states other than California, but tolls are now being discussed by the Arizona Department of Transportation and others as an inevitable part of our future.

The system can be automated, as it is in California. A motorist puts a small transponder in the car — a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes — which permits him to drive through a toll station without stopping. The transponder sends a signal that identifies your car and account information, and the consumer pays the toll fees on a monthly basis.

The Economist, a weekly magazine, carried a summary of toll road innovations in 2004 and called this one “the taxman on your dashboard.”

Some cities — notably London and Singapore — have added another dimension to this practice. As economist Noah Clarke notes in the Goldwater Institute newsletter, those cities have instituted “congestion pricing”: Motorists pay a toll just to enter the city’s center.

This practice has reduced traffic congestion and air pollution. But we know of no one who has looked at the effect of tolls or “congestion pricing” on the lives of people living on modest incomes.

Is anyone’s income increasing as rapidly as the cost of fuel? When was the last time your gas, electric, telephone or water bill was lowered? If we add tolls to this list, the amount of disposable income diminishes.

The Goldwater Institute’s Clarke, one of the more idealistic economists we’ve spoken to lately, says it ain’t necessarily so. For one thing, he says, if motorists began paying for the roads they use, then the state would have to borrow less to build new highways. Less borrowing means less interest to pay. It follows, Clarke said, that the state should then be able to eliminate other fees. Of course, it requires a leap of faith to think the state will cancel one fee because of the imposition of another.

The other possibility that Clarke mentions is a good one: Employers might allow more flexible hours so that employees aren’t using the highways at a time when the fees are highest.

In this scenario, your company adjusts your hours so you’re not driving during rush hour. Or, better yet, the company allows you to work from your home computer, saving you money for gas and tolls and helping to reduce air pollution. That’s the ideal, but it may be wishful thinking.

It is clear that large amounts of money are needed to build highways and that some alternatives must be developed to lure people from their cars. It is equally clear that even though Arizona has taken a conservative approach to borrowing for highway construction, the practice cannot continue forever without eventually encountering political resistance.

The discussion on how to finance road construction should be a top priority for the governor and the Legislature, but our bureaucrats must add to this equation a higher level of awareness about the economic realities faced by citizens living on modest incomes.

There may be a seductive logic to tolls, but some public works projects — and we think the highway system is one of them — should be a responsibility shared by everyone, because the economic consequences of bad or nonexistent roads affect the entire state.

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