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Winter/Spring 2006 Vol. 6 No. 1

Table of Contents

Pay As You Go

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A Plan to Improve Roads and
Reduce Congestion

Tired of sitting in traffic on the daily commute to work, driving around the same potholes every day, or navigating road work that never seems to end? Maybe there's a solution in sight.

A new report from the Transportation Research Board endorses a proposed plan that could not only improve traffic conditions but the quality of roads as well. Instead of paying fuel taxes at the gas pump, which subsidizes the lion's share of highway operations, travelers could pay for the miles they drive. The committee that wrote the report said that such fees would prompt some drivers to take cheaper alternate routes, travel in off-peak hours, or switch to transit, while others would be willing to pay rush-hour fees to travel on less-congested roads.

"Congestion in our nation's urban areas is only getting worse over time," said Rudolph Penner, committee chair and senior fellow, Urban Institute, Washington, D.C. "If drivers paid for the roads they use, not only would traffic conditions improve, but the public agencies collecting the money would increase their efforts to improve the roads."

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Although the current funding system has been effective for maintaining existing highways and building new ones, it cannot help improve traffic flow, the report says. Also, the system doesn't compel agencies to check that individual transportation projects are financially justifiable and conducted efficiently. The new funding plan would zero in on projects with the greatest benefits to the general public and could increase the cost-effectiveness of highway spending in general.

The new plan could partially or completely eliminate fuel taxes -- which represent nearly 20 percent of what drivers pay for gas -- and would require drivers to pay a toll for the highways they use. The toll would be used to cover the cost of highway maintenance and traffic services such as police, but the greatest benefit would be the alleviation of congestion, particularly in urban areas during peak hours, when each driver slows down traffic upon entering a congested road. It is not clear how much drivers would need to pay for tolls or whether the amount paid would fully replace fuel taxes. But the total amount collected might be less than what they pay today in fuel taxes and other user fees because roads would be used more efficiently, Penner said.

For the plan to be adopted, public acceptance will be critical. Highway agencies will need to demonstrate that the plan is worth implementing and be receptive to suggestions from the public, the committee said. Once technically proven and publicly acceptable designs are available, the federal government should support large-scale trials.

For the coming decade, transportation agencies should expand use of conventional tolling on existing and new expressways, and establish tolls that vary over time to manage demand and prevent traffic jams, the report says. In the longer term, variable toll lanes could be extended to entire highways. Then, after a few more years, all roads could be charged, with lower fees for non-highway driving. The committee noted that commuting by car during rush hour would become more expensive and bus travel would be faster and more reliable, so more people might decide to use transit services.
  -- Patrice Pages

The Fuel Tax and Alternatives for Transportation Funding -- Special Report 285. Committee on the Long-Term Viability of Fuel Taxes for Transportation Finance, Transportation Research Board (2006, approx. 222 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09419-4; available from the board, tel. 202-334-3213; $30.00 for single copies).

Rudolph Penner, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., chaired the committee. The study was funded by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, and the Transportation Research Board.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences