Fuel Economy & Toll Roads: Using One Problem To Solve Another

By NMA President, James Baxter

In the February issue of Car and Driver Magazine there were two articles that, in their own way dovetailed together to answer a question no one is asking, but perhaps they should be.

Csaba Csere, Editor-In-Chief, started out with a lament on the futility and pointlessness of the new federal Corporate Fuel Economy law. This is the political answer to reducing energy consumption and as Csaba points out, changing fuel economy standards does not change fuel economy.

Cutting to the chase; in the short and mid term the only way fuel consumption will be reduced is if we consumers change how we use this fuel. We can drive smaller and/or lower powered vehicles or we can drive less. Sure, there will be small improvements around the edges in terms of improved power plants and different fuels, but these techno fixes will not turn a 6000 pound SUV into a fuel sipper.

As far as driving less, it has never been our first (or second or third) choice.

The universal “motivator” and “attitude adjuster” is money. As fuel costs increase motorists look for ways to lower those costs; i.e. buying a more efficient vehicle. The cost of motor fuels will naturally increase if demand crowds supply; the prominent reason for today’s three plus dollars a gallon cost.

The other way to increase fuel costs and thereby reduce consumption is the European approach, levy an onerous tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. Mr. Csere indicates some sympathy for raising taxes with the caveat that they be raised on all energy sources, given that transportation only accounts for 20 percent of energy consumption.

Normally, this is where we would part company. Giving the government more money has one guaranteed result; we get more government. We don’t need more government anymore than we need more foreign adventures, more IRS regulations, or more traffic laws.

But, then came Editor at Large Pat Bedard’s editorial on toll roads.

Pat described how our benevolent governments climb in bed with toll road operators to maximize toll road profits. This is primarily accomplished by making sure that the “free roads” (the roads we motorists have already paid for) are sufficiently crippled with poor maintenance, detours, traffic lights and lowered speed limits such that they cannot be a viable alternative to the toll road system.

These humanitarian gestures take the form of “no compete” agreements that effectively give the toll road operators a monopoly on functional transportation—all competitive public highways are rendered dysfunctional.

The bottom line is that toll roads and effectively managed public roads cannot coexist. The traveling public is ill served by those attempts to blend the two together. Don’t get me wrong; if some corporation wants to build a private highway absent government involvement, regulation, and support, go for it.

However, toll roads, as we know them, are reeking with government involvement, regulation, and support. There’s just no real public accountability.

Then it hit me; over in the Blue corner is Csaba Csere wanting to tax motorists to curtail fuel consumption, and in the Red corner is Pat Bedard railing against the perversions of toll roads and their handmaidens in government.

Here’s the answer to the question that hasn’t been asked: Significantly increase the fuel tax and apply the money to paying off all the toll roads and converting them to freeways. Use some more of that money to:

  1. Fix the roads that were destroyed to make the toll roads more profitable.
  2. Retime and synchronize traffic signal systems so they move traffic.
  3. Fully fund the traffic court system so the judges won’t feel quite so compelled to view traffic tickets as a profit center.

This is starting to sound like a “win win” situation!

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