James Kennedy: Conservatives Should Support Tolls

The Rhode Island GOP released a plan to fund bridge repairs in the state without tolls. The plan outlines a number of cuts that the GOP says will add up to the funds needed for RhodeWorks, Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to repair Rhode Island’s roads and bridges. While there are merits to the plan, one of the biggest drawbacks is its continued advisement that conservatives should be opposed to tolls as a tool in the transportation toolbox. I believe this advice is wrong.

There are a number of questions to be asked about this proposal. Item #5 of Ian Donnis’s “Things to Know” list questions the budgeting assumptions in the plan, with House spokesperson Larry Berman pointing out that money set aside for these items may not be available next year.

Whatever the long-term availability of funds is, though, there’s no reason to dismiss out of hand the budget cuts named by the GOP. Some of the cuts should be accepted immediately without question: a budget item, for instance, removing state funding for casino advertisements, which Rep. Morgan describes as “corporate welfare,” is a cut that I think will find a receptive audience on the left and right. Only the most transactional politicians would want to fight for such a budget item.

But that leaves open the question of whether tolls make sense. Although I agree with the cuts proposed, I would argue that the neater and cleaner thing to do from a budgeting perspective would be to issue these cuts as a tax cut (even if that tax cut can only survive one year). From there, tolls are left as an item of their own.

Tolls themselves should make sense to conservatives. They apportion resources according to how much an individual uses and how much he or she is willing to pay. It would follow that a single truck — which damages bridges 10,000 times as much as a single car — should pay 10,000 times as much, in a strictly economically conservative sense.

I’ve debated with conservatives like C. Andrew Morse on the issue of debt, which he views as inextricably linked to tolls. There’s actually more overlap between his and my views on debt than might be expected. From a conservative urbanist perspective, many of the megaprojects that have most destroyed our productive places have been enabled by debt-financing, and restraining RIDOT from freely wielding money is a good idea.

The largest portion of the proposed toll money goes to rebuilding the 6/10 Connector, which destroyed the fabric of Olneyville — once Providence’s “second downtown.” As part of a larger group of advocates, I have pushed RIDOT to reassess the 6/10 Connector and to build a much cheaper, more development-friendly boulevard. Conservatives should look to limit debt by limiting unnecessary building.

For the remainder of debt, an open question remains. It’s unfortunately true that through deferred maintenance, we’ve left some of our infrastructure in such poor shape that it’s about to fall down, and deferring maintenance further can sometimes cost much more than debt service. In the long term, prudence in engineering and avoidance of deferred maintenance should make Rhode Island more amenable to a pay-as-you-go model. Even if we accept debt as part of a RhodeWorks package, a strong conservative critique of how much debt we take on, when, and how would be helpful.

Some conservatives I’ve debated, like state GOP outreach chair Luis Vargas, suggested a different method of charging trucks than toll gantries, instead opting for GPS (C. Andrew Morse, for his part, suggests registration charges). So long as the math adds up on these proposals, there should be no inherent reason to reject them.

I’ve raised a question above and beyond RhodeWorks: Is there a role for congestion charges in the Rhode Island transportation system. It’s important, again, to emphasize that this is my question, not the governor’s. I believe that congestion charges should operate differently than truck tolls. While truck tolls are a revenue source, congestion charges would best be used if the funding was fully refunded as tax cuts somewhere else in the budget.

We build very expensive pieces of infrastructure that are used primarily during tiny peak periods of the day, and experience from other places has shown that assigning a small price to peak use helps to distribute traffic congestion more effectively than anything else. Examples from communist China of trying to build our way out of congestion have failed miserably, because road expansion is a tragedy of the commons.

Jonas Eliasson argues that congestion charges are a market-based way of managing traffic. Eliasson relates our attempts to plan our way out of problems without market systems as akin to a Soviet planner expecting that someone is “in charge” of London’s bread supply. Surely conservatives would want to avoid such hubris.

As I’ve noted, the details of RhodeWorks have much left to be debated, and conservatives can play a valid role in pushing for changes to a plan that will make it better. But whatever else is true, conservatives should embrace the idea of different charges for different types of use. The basics of a toll plan are conservative, and should be supported by conservatives.


James Kennedy writes for the blog Transport Providence (follow on Twitter), and has appeared in left- and right-leaning publications across the country. He’s interested in zoning deregulation, highway-to-boulevard conversions, frequent transit, and protected bike lanes.

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