Why Socializing the Cost of Major Roads and Highways Benefits the Wealthy

By Dom Nozzi

My partner recently claimed that tolling roads was a “Republican” idea (an idea, she implied, that benefitted the wealthy more than the less wealthy) because tolls are more affordable for the wealthy.

This is a common misunderstanding.

It turns out that tolling roads actually creates a world that is more beneficial for those who are less wealthy.

1.       Wealthy people drive on toll roads more often than less wealthy people, which means the wealthy pay more for tolls.

2.       When there are no tolls (ie, no user fee) on a road, road costs are paid by everyone, instead of based on how often a motorist uses a road (again, the wealthy drive on roads more than the less wealthy). The less wealthy are not able to avoid paying for roads when roads are socialized, because the less wealthy (at least those who own homes) are not able to avoid paying property taxes. By contrast, the less wealthy do have the ability to avoid paying for unsocialized roads, because they have the option of avoiding toll roads.

3.       Travel by car is inherently a form of travel for wealthy people (compared to the far more affordable transit, walking, or cycling). It is therefore an example of how wealthy individuals promote capitalism, yet make an exception for their opposition to socialism by approving of the socialization a form of travel (car travel) that is the most expensive way to travel. It is the wealthy who benefit most when the most wealthy form of travel is socialized.

4.       Because car travel is zero-sum (making it easier to drive a car inherently makes it more difficult and less likely that a person can travel by transit, walking or cycling), socialized roads obligate citizens to be more car-dependent and therefore be required to own more cars per household (less socialization of road costs reduces per capita car dependency). Over the past century of socialized roads, this has resulted in the proportion of money a household must allocate to car travel from 2 percent of the total household budget to about 22 percent of the household budget. This has created a severe affordability crisis for less wealthy people. Less wealthy households now have far less money available for housing, education, health care, food, etc.

5.       Socialized roads inevitably create extremely high societal car dependency, which creates enormous, unstoppable political pressure to create and maintain large-lot, very low residential densities. This is because car travel becomes enormously difficult and enormously costly at higher densities due to loss of space for cars. This is why there is such low per capita car ownership in places such as Manhattan. The large-lot, low-density residential housing pattern that car travel must have to make car travel feasible increases the cost of housing because less wealthy households are obligated to buy more land when they buy a house.

6.       The low-density, single-use (residential only) land use patterns obligated by socialized roads creates severe job- and wealth-creation limitations for less wealthy people because, as Jane Jacobs showed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the capital needed for business creation is far higher in a low-density, single-use suburbs than in a compact, dense, mixed-use town center. In the suburban setting, a business start-up typically requires purchase of a large property, construction of an expensive building, hiring a number of employees, and provision of a lot of parking. In a town center location, a business start-up can often be nothing more than placing a chair and sign on a sidewalk to open your shoe shine or hot dog business.

7.       Because socialized roads promote a society that is severely car-dependent and low-density, the community finds itself with the need to pay for the most expensive form of societal travel (car travel). However, because the low-density land use patterns obligated in the community to make the obligatory car travel feasible come nowhere near paying their own way for needed services (from the tax revenue it produces), local and state government are obligated to starve essential government services (such as health, education, and other social services the less wealthy household depends on far more than wealthy households) in order to be able to afford to pay for the enormous costs of maintaining the spectacularly expensive car infrastructure.

8.       Because socialized roads create a society that is severely car-dependent, that society is obligated to fight a much higher number of “oil wars” to retain national access to affordable gasoline. The less wealhy citizens are inherently more obligated to fight such wars than the wealthy.

9.       Without toll revenue, there is far less money available to provide the public transit that less wealthy people depend on far more than wealthy people.

10.     Without toll revenue, local governments must allocate more of the general fund to transportation, which starves government social programs that less wealthy people depend on far more than wealthy people.

11.     A lack of a road user fee inevitably increases per capita car dependence and car miles traveled, which thereby increases the size of roads and the amount of air and noise and water pollution generated by car traffic. Less wealthy neighborhoods suffer far more than wealthy neighborhoods because they tend to be located closer to major roads and highways.

12.     The taxes that must be paid by less wealthy people are far higher in a car-dependent society because the per capita cost of needed car infrastructure is far higher than the cost of infrastructure needed for non-car travel.

In sum, by socializing roads rather than establishing toll user fees, we create a world that is far more beneficial to the wealthy than the less wealthy.

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