Every day on my way home from work I zip by tens of thousands of people behind the wheels of cars stuck in hopelessly gridlocked traffic because they didn’t want to pay the toll (usually between $2 and $10, depending on the direction and time of day) for the open express lanes.
For me, the money spent every day for the right to avoid 10 miles of traffic hell is money well-spent. I currently spend about $1000 each year for the privilege of driving unimpeded and, truth be told, I would gladly spend double that if I had to.
Those express toll lanes are a beautiful thing – without them I would not be able to endure my daily 38 mile commute and I would most likely be forced to leave my employer of many years to take a much lower paying job closer to home.
Not everybody thinks they are a good deal.
In fact, a lot of people argue that paid toll lanes are inherently unfair to low-income drivers. They wonder why those who make less money should have to endure a hellish commute while others who can afford to pay for it get to whiz by in relative comfort.
A joint study conducted in 2008 by UCLA and USC actually seems to disprove that line of thought.
According to the study, pay-as-you-go transportation options like toll express lanes are actually fairer to all income levels than paying for road improvements such as additional express lanes through sales taxes alone.
While the study found that toll express lanes are disproportionately used by middle- and upper-middle-income households, it also found that those same drivers would have ended up paying less each year if the lanes would have been funded via their sales taxes.
What troubles me is the study authors’ suggestion that policymakers worried about low-income peak-period commuters could provide discounted subsidy pricing based on income levels, or provide travel credits to lower-income commuters.
Of course, such a suggestion poses another problem.
Since the only way to keep the express lanes flowing smoothly is to raise the prices during times of peak use, the implementation of subsidies would result in other drivers being priced out of the lanes in favor of the subsidized lower-income drivers. How fair is that?
As usual, when it comes to subsidies and hand-outs there is no free lunch.
Somebody is always going to have to pay.