Stuck in Traffic

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
: 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

Go there >>
Stuck in Traffic: Free-Market Theory Meets the
Highway Lobby

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.