You’ve heard the buzz about “Lexus Lanes,” a new trend where tolls are adjusted in order to keep some freeway lanes flowing smoothly. They’re related to the idea of charging higher prices for parking, or even a congestion charge such as the one considered for New York City. It’s widely thought the lanes are unfair, since they allow wealthy drivers to zip past congestion. There’s only one problem with that view: a new study disproved it, arguing instead toll lanes are more just than the usual method for funding highways, sales taxes.
Two California professors considered the issue in a new article titled, “Just Pricing: The Distributional Effects of Congestion Pricing and Sales Taxes.” The study found that the lanes were disproportionately used by middle and upper-middle income people, and that the tolls were regressive. So what’s the rub? It turns out the usual means for paying for transportation infrastructure, such as sales and gas taxes, are even more regressive than tolls. In fact, the study concludes that:
… if [sales tax] funds had been used to finance the express lanes, the study found, the poor and wealthy would have paid more. Middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers would have paid $26 million less each year than they paid under the current cost-distribution system, and the very poorest residents would have paid over $3 million more than they actually did under the current toll system.
They conclude that “Using sales taxes to fund roadways creates substantial savings to drivers by shifting some of the costs of driving from drivers to consumers at large, and in the process disproportionately favors the more affluent at the expense of the impoverished.” The authors propose two policies to overcome the remaining regressive character of tolls: giving out free travel credits to low income commuters, or using the funds to invest in public transit. The comparison is between tolls and general sales taxes, not gas taxes, but I suspect gas taxes would have been only slightly less regressive than sales taxes. (Because the poor own fewer cars and drive less)
Previously I also suggested we should consider other benefits of congestion pricing in the equation – greater transportation choice for all (including low-income commuters), less pollution, and perhaps a shift in behavior towards transit, carpooling, or other more efficient modes. I also discussed before some of the implications for another form of congestion pricing — raising parking meter rates.
What most frustrates me with congestion pricing critics is not their concern — not enough research has been done on equity, and it is a valid point to discuss — but how misplaced it seems given our skewed policies. Our society is riddled with deeply regressive policies. Sales taxes, gas taxes, and lotteries are all known to be regressive. We spend more than twice as much money subsidizing housing for the rich than we do for the poor. The poor disproportionately live near sources of pollution, and consequently have higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and other diseases caused by environmental factors. Meanwhile, our public transit systems, critical lifelines to opportunity for the very poor, are crumbling. In that light, adopting less-regressive congestion pricing and spending some of the revenue on transit service seems like a good decision.