Placing more tolls on fewer drivers is not the solution

Placing more tolls on fewer drivers is not the solution


When you’re in over your head, stop digging. That old saw same to mind as I read this article that says fewer people are using the Massachusetts Turnpike because of rising gas prices so they’re thinking of raising tolls to compensate. Huh?

Drivers, struggling with high gas prices, avoided the debt-plagued Pike this summer as the department’s finances inched closer to junk-bond status yesterday.“This is yet another wake-up call,” said Pike board member Mary Connaughton. “Barring some type of state aid, the only solution is a toll increase.”

Typical liberal thinking. It ignores actual economic behavior or that people will act in their own self-interest. What we see is that commuters who are cost-conscious are finding alternate means of getting to work because of a rise in the cost of commuting. So is the solution really to increase the cost even further? That will only drive even more tollpayers away from the Pike and exacerbate the problem.

I’ve told the story before of the Democrat Senator in the early 90s who asked the Congressional Budget Office to conduct a study of the potential revenue from a 100% tax on income over $1 million. That is, you pay normal rates on all the money you earn up to $1 million, but every dollar you earn above that you turn over to the government. He was actually surprised to learn the CBO’s answer: The potential revenue would be ZERO. If the state confiscated all income over $1 million why would anyone bother earning that much? Better to let the company keep the money to invest in itself, in new employees, pay raises, capital improvements, than to simply give it away.

What the liberal Senator—and the liberals running the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority—don’t seem to get is that taxpayers and commuters act in their self-interest and aren’t just waiting for some out-of-touch bureaucrat or politician to tell them what to do.

I have a suggestion to the Turnpike Authority: How about cutting tolls and then cutting costs and seeing how many more people, not fewer, start using the Pike.


  • 1. Re tolls on other routes in Boston:

    Well, grasshopper, the reason is really a matter of road design. The Pike was designed as a *very* limited access highway, which leads to more controlled traffic and much fewer incentives to get off the road to evade tolls. It also has historically been far better maintained in quality than the other roads due to its dedicated funding for that purpose.

    Other routes have many more entrance/exit points, making toll evasion much easier and proving more problematic to local neighborhoods.

    Also, finding places to put tolls is more difficult on roads that were not designed with toll plazas in mind.

    Finally, the toll plazas would have to involve automatic billing to avoid environmental issues that would probably block them otherwise.

    It’s one thing to design a toll road. It’s quite another to re-design an existing freeway to become a tollway.

    2. Re: Taxes

    The reductio ad absurdam of course works in both directions. Even the author of the Laffer curve has distanced himself (either last year or the year before, IIRC) from GOP efforts to overargue the lower taxes=higher revenue point.

    3. Re: Liberal

    The attitude of the Pike authority is hardly liberal. It’s an issue of monopoly control of a public use. If the Pike were entirely private (it’s really semi-private – self-funded but subject to public oversight and public appointments), it would not necessarily behave differently in its thinking on this point.

    4. Re: Tolls

    I am of the opinion that tolls should be eliminated after the original bonds are paid off, and then road maintenance should be funded through general statewide taxes (gas tax is the most efficient approach, but not the only one). It was Robert Moses who, through learning how to draft bills in Albany, created the notion of roadway authorities that have a relatively permanent existence through perpetual refunding of their bonds. Robert Moses was no liberal, but a very conservative guy (while he got his start among good-government Republicans, and then got educated and patronized by Al Smith, he later re-aligned strongly with conservative GOP local leaders, but I digress).

  • There has been a proposal to use Fast Pass-like electronic tolls at every exit on chosen highways, but that’s problematic for a number of reasons. I think it’s better, as you say, to fund tolls by other means.

    I also think you make the classic, if widespread, assumption that conservative=Republican. It does not. We see in today’s Washington, DC, plenty of fat-bottomed big-government Republicans who claim to be conservative.

    For one thing the Laffer curve does not equal Reaganesque supply-side economics, even if it was a part of the arguments in favor of it. Certainly it’s been proven that lowering “prices” can raise overall “income” because it takes into account “consumers’” behavior, whereas most liberal models do not.

    I will argue that my explanation is reductio, but not ad absurdam, for the sake of explaining the principles to the widest audience.

    The attitude of the Pike board and of the Legislature is very liberal in the sense that their view on government revenues and economic policy is common among many liberal politicians.