Stuck in Traffic

Free-market theory could be the key to greener travel

| August 17, 2006

As urbanites face surging gas prices, a smog of fuel emissions, and traffic-clogged commutes, mass transit is starting to look like a good solution to even the most devoted of drivers. But a steady refrain of mass transit naysayers is helping to keep wavering drivers on the road. The construction costs of mass transit are daunting, the argument goes. Writing for Dissent, Benjamin Ross cites the stark terms of Wendell Cox, a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute: For the price of building a light rail the government could buy a Mercedes for each future rider.

But, Ross asks, what about 'the price of the road the Mercedes will drive on'? Free-market pundits like Cox who advocate road expansion over increased public transit have overlooked an important factor in the transport equation -- subsidies for highway building and maintenance. As suburbia sprawls and the highways reach farther and get fatter, federal and state allowances are facing ballooning price tags -- up to $3 billion to link one suburb to a city.

We think of roads as free, but if a truly free-market approach were initiated -- one in which we had to pay for the use of our pathways -- public transit would appear the more feasible and thrifty option. If used correctly, Ross predicts, tolls could provide a way to offset highway-building costs and redirect funds to mass transit. Another option is a congestion fee -- a charge to drive in crowded downtowns -- which already has proved successful at increasing efficiency in the streets of Bergen, Norway, Stockholm, and London.

Ross isn't advocating an immediate switch to pay-for-use taxes -- he acknowledges that 'intolerable hardships would be imposed by suddenly making drivers pay the full cost of the roads they use.' His idea is first to expand public transit so that those who couldn't or wouldn't pay such fees have an alternative. Once these systems are in place, tolls could increase so that users would pay fees to cover the costs associated with road building and maintenance. This environmentally friendly approach would promote smart growth, with neighborhoods designed for mixed usability and walkable navigation. Demand for such concentrated community design is already evident, giving Ross optimism that -- left to the devices of a truly free market -- America's ecological footprint would naturally get smaller. -- Suzanne Lindgren



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