Photo credit: Andrew Dallos
With the election over, the incoming Trump administration is now tasked with preparing to govern. What might federal transportation policy look like under a Trump administration?
That remains to be seen, but we do have at least a clue: It sounds like Shirley Ybarra might be leading Trump’s Department of Transportation. Based on Ms. Ybarra’s affiliation with, and some of her writing for, the Reason Foundation, I think we can expect a DOT led by Ms. Ybarra under the Trump Administration to place a greater emphasis on facilitating privatization, public-private partnerships, devolution of transportation funding, and tolling. Honestly, I’m generally okay with all of that (although I’m not sure that all of Trump’s (primarily rural) supporters would be).
Let’s talk about tolling. I’m a fan. Speaking broadly, our roads are underfunded, and travel by car is under-priced. Tolling has the potential to address both of these problems.
Of course, a problem with tolling is that it tends to be regressive: low-income toll-road users will end up spending a higher percentage of their income on tolls than high-income toll-road users do. Lisa Schweitzer and Brian Taylor have pointed out that we should really be discussing the fairness and regressivity of tolling relative to an alternative, status-quo funding mechanism. At a local level, particularly in Southern California (the site of Schweitzer and Taylor’s case study), the alternative to tolling is likely to be a transportation sales tax, which is even more regressive than a toll. At a federal level, if we’re considering tolling the Interstate system, the status quo revenue stream to compare that to is probably the federal gas tax. I’m inclined to think that tolling the Interstate would be less regressive than the gas tax if low-income drivers are more likely to be driving older, less fuel-efficient cars.
Tolling the Interstate could also have a disproportionate effect on drivers in rural areas and exurbs where there are fewer alternatives to car/freeway travel. This would make it an interesting choice for the Trump administration, given that Trump’s supporters seem to be largely concentrated in (or rather, dispersed throughout) rural areas.
Of course, you can’t really talk about the disproportionate effects of a revenue source without talking about how that revenue will be spent (as Mike Manville and Donald Shoup have discussed). If tolls have more of an effect on rural populations than urban populations, you can mitigate that by taking the money you collect and spending it in those rural areas. But, if we’re talking about a privately-run tolling system, that may not be what happens. A private company would be distributing its revenues to its shareholders rather than to its rural customers (and to add insult to injury, private toll roads in the United States are often operated by foreign firms). Moreover, to the extent that those revenues are being reinvested to improve the state of the infrastructure, that investment is more likely to be concentrated in urban areas where congestion relief is a higher priority and where potential customers have more alternatives to highway travel and are thus in a better position to demand higher-quality facilities.
None of this is an argument against tolling. As I said, I’m a fan. But I think it could cause some backlash among Trump’s base if it’s done in a way that dramatically departs from the status quo. It will be interesting to see what happens.