America’s Myopic Public Debate About Tolling Roads

A tolling holiday on the SR 520 bridge in Seattle would likely make traffic worse during a construction project, but that's what some have demanded. Photo: Marc Smith, Flickr

Suspending tolls on the SR 520 bridge in Seattle would likely make traffic worse during a construction project, but that’s what some motorists say they want. Photo: Marc Smith/Flickr

Seattle is getting ready to embark on a construction project that will put the squeeze on a few of its major highways. This event, ironically, served as a jumping off point for local media to indignantly demand a tolling “holiday” on the SR 520 floating bridge.

Martin Duke at Seattle Transit Blog said the episode illustrates the absurdity of the debate about highway tolling:

The idea that tolling is some insidious stealth tax, or a fundamental violation of the inalienable right to drive anywhere, for free, with unlimited subsidy is a well-established cancer on the Puget Sound’s discourse.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand our highway capacity and “ease congestion” does massive damage to the environment and ends up inducing the same congestion. But in that debate, the establishment wrings its hands about the economy and the need to move freight around, because time is money. When maintenance dramatically reduces highway capacity, however, no one cares enough about businesses to do the one thing that might help.

I agree that freight operators, the handyman with his tools, and so on need uncongested highways. And because shorter trips on the highway feed directly into their bottom line, tolls are but a fraction of the cost of sitting in traffic because there’s no alternative. The answer, if policymakers really care about businesses like PCC Logistics, is not to suspend the toll but raise the toll to whatever level keeps 520 free-flowing this week.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Counting Pantographs offers an interesting discussion about how sprawl affects the Mormon Church. Greater Greater Washington talks to activists trying to improve the impact of a Metro construction project on public space in Silver Spring. And the City Fix explains how congestion pricing could help reduce inequality in Beijing.