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Fairness and Road Funding: Tolls Are Regressive, but Sales Taxes Are More So

Socialism, Orange County-style: From each regardless of their ability to pay, to each according to their mode of travel. Photo by Moondoggie71/Flickr

One of the first objections to congestion pricing of any sort is the undue burden it would place on lower-income groups (many of these objections seem to come from people who aren’t typically concerned with issues of distributional fairness in other arenas of life).

In “Just Pricing: The Distributional Effects of Congestion Pricing and Sales Taxes,” a paper published in the journal Transportation by USC’s Lisa Schweitzer & UCLA’s Brian D. Taylor, the researchers raise an immediate challenge to this logic: “This contention, however, fails to consider (1) how much low-income residents already pay for transportation in taxes and fees, or (2) how much residents would pay for highway infrastructure under an alternative revenue-generating scheme, such as a sales tax.”

In the paper, they examine the costs on users entailed by Orange County’s S.R. 91, the “value priced” road that allows commuters to choose faster travel times by paying a higher price, against other Orange County roads that are paid for by general sales tax, under Measure M — a more popular way, it turns out, to pay for the county’s “freeways” (an Orwellian abuse of language if there ever was one).

They make a number of important points which I’ll summarize here.

Are tolls regressive? According to this and many previous analyses, yes. But for transport
policy, whether tolls are regressive fails to fully address the justice and fairness issues that
arise in financing road use. Whenever members of lower income groups pay for services,
they may be expected to pay a greater share of their income than do the wealthy. Strictly
speaking, public transit fares are regressive. The fact that congestion tolls are regressive in
the abstract reflects only one aspect of the distributional justice issues facing transportation
and taxation. The real issues are comparative: are congestion tolls more or less regressive
than other tax or price strategies?

On the sales tax, which they note is the fastest growing way to fund roads in the U.S., they note that while sale taxes are distributed widely across society, lower-income groups pay the highest proportion of their income on sales taxes. But here’s the kicker:

While the income regressivity of sales taxes is an issue, it becomes an even greater concern when one notes how much sales tax revenues, when spent on transportation projects that primarily benefit individual users of an improved facility, redistribute cost burdens from users to non-users. In this case, the heaviest users of SR91’s priced lanes—who are the largest beneficiaries of the time savings it provides—are disproportionately from middle- and upper-middle income households both inside and outside of Orange County. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to compare such benefits in detail, we can say that if Orange County’s Measure M had financed the SR91 facility, the added capacity would have lowered the direct time and money costs of peak-hour, peak-direction trips on SR91 in the short term, but resulted in higher aggregate levels of person- and vehicle delay in the longer term if congestion reoccurs. From a regional planning perspective, funding freeway capacity with the sales tax is a pro-auto/pro-driving policy that taxes all residents, the rich and (disproportionately) the poor, to provide benefits to a smaller group of drivers and their passengers.”

This sounds like socialism, Orange County-style: From each regardless of their ability to pay, to each according to their mode of travel.

The sales tax is a “hidden” subsidy that makes driving seem cheaper than it is (and thus never encourages any reduction in driving). And on that subject let’s not forget the semi-permanent “gas tax holiday” the U.S. has been on for nearly the last two decades. As Taylor notes elsewhere (pdf here), “the average combined state/federal fuel tax in the United States today ($0.375 per gallon) charges drivers about $0.02 per miles, on average, for their use of the road system, the lowest rate in the developed world, and about one-third of the inflation-adjusted U.S. rate in 1960.”

The result is ever more drivers using ever worsening roads. The U.S. road transportation system in this regard reminds me of the old Catskills joke, noted in Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

And going back to Orange County and Measure M, let’s not forget the question of externalities.

These problems are especially a concern if the environmental, energy, safety, and congestion externalities associated with driving are also regressively distributed (Schweitzer and Valenzuela Jr. 2004). If these externalities are, in fact, regressively distributed, then the Measure M transportation sales tax, if used on road projects, would disproportionately tax poorer residents to subsidize an activity whose externalities (such as noise and freeway-adjacent particulate emissions) harm them.

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This entry was posted on Friday, March 27th, 2009 at 8:10 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Commuting, Congestion, Roads, Traffic Wonkery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Fairness and Road Funding: Tolls Are Regressive, but Sales Taxes Are More So”

  1. Jeffrey W. Baker Says:

    Wish I could read the paper, no doubt funded in part by my astronomical state taxes, without having to chip in $34 for some journal publishing fat cats.

  2. DBS Says:

    @ Jeffrey W. Baker:

    Try this link for a free pdf version of the paper:

    http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=2581

    I wonder if anyone in the MA state legislature will bother to consider this study’s implications before going through with the proposed $0.20 hike in the state gas tax and/or the proposed toll increases on the turnpike and roads/tunnels around Boston.

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