Atlantic Cities

Road Fees Don't Hurt the Poor as Much as You Might Think

Road Fees Don't Hurt the Poor as Much as You Might Think
Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments

High-occupancy toll lanes, which charge single drivers a usage fee but are (typically) free to carpoolers, are popping up in metropolitan areas all over the country. The reasons are numerous but largely come down to money: HOT lanes are relatively inexpensive to create, and they generate their own revenue. At a time when all levels of government are struggling to fund transportation, that's a recipe for popularity.

But a lingering question with regard to HOT lanes is whether or not they're fair to the poor. Simply put, is it equitable to charge a road fee that high-income drivers will be more capable of paying, especially when that road was once free to the public? This is the old "Lexus lanes" dilemma, and alliteration aside, it's a tricky one.

Some background on the matter is in order. Federal transportation laws frequently address equity in a very explicit way: the word itself appeared in the full titles of these authorizations in both 1998 and 2005. But "equity" means very different things to different people. To some, it suggests equal transportation access to people of all income levels; to others, it means that states should get back in federal funding what they contribute in federal gas taxes.

Lately lawmakers have accepted the latter definition, but there's a strong historical argument for the former meaning, too. For one thing, public roads were originally provided as a means of keeping postal delivery a public service. Beyond that, the very first federal road funding bill, authorized in 1916, mandated that public roads built with public money remain "free from tolls."

So opposition to HOT lanes on the grounds of fairness is, in some sense, encoded in America's cultural DNA. But a couple recent arguments suggest that HOT lanes and the country's egalitarian spirit can, in fact, coexist.

The first comes from Harvard planning scholar and noted equity advocate Alan Altshuler. In a summary of previous research prepared for the latest issue of the ACCESS transportation journal, Altshuler argues that HOT lanes fulfill the "Do No Harm" planning mantra coined after the rough years of urban renewal. This ethic, which calls for urban transportation projects to be rejected if they harm any population group, effectively protects low-income city residents.

Altshuler bases his position on a couple surveys conducted in metro areas that have adopted HOT lanes in the recent past. One was done in San Diego circa 2001. At that time, about 80 percent of low-income respondents agreed with the concept that people should be able to use an express lane on Interstate 15 for a fee — a greater percentage of agreement than people from high-income brackets (70 percent). Additionally, two thirds of people who didn't even use the lanes still supported them.

A similar survey was done in 2006 in Minnesota. That work showed a 60 percent approval rate for HOT lanes on Interstate 394. A stronger analysis of this corridor, done by Tyler Patterson and David Levinson [PDF], found that income levels did predict use of the express lane (with higher-income drivers using them more often), but that lower-income drivers could also benefit from the shift of traffic out of the free lanes (as well as always having the express option in a time crunch).

(And a far more recent survey, released in April, showed that two-thirds of people making less than $50,000 a year said they'd use express toll lanes — the same percentage as people making more than that.)

HOT lanes, concludes Altshuler, "are unique among major congestion-relief options in that they satisfy the 'Do No Harm' criterion of equity: they leave no one worse off."

A second argument for HOT lane equity was summarized in an issue of ACCESS from 2010. This rationale, provided by Lisa Schweitzer and Brian Taylor, was based on the idea that equity can't be evaluated in the abstract. Rather, it must be compared directly with other highway policies in existence — in particular, to the sales tax referenda that have become a regular form of local transportation funding.

Schweitzer and Taylor made their comparison using SR-91 in Orange County, California. In 2003, the SR-91 HOT lanes generated $34 million. If a sales tax had been in place instead of the express toll, the researchers determined that the burden of payment shifted from HOT lane users to three other population groups: the rich (who buy the most stuff), the non-users (who wouldn't have used the lanes), and the poor (who pay more than their share because sales taxes are regressive).

In other words, Schweitzer and Taylor conclude, sales taxes are "doubly unfair" and represent a "pro-auto/pro-driving policy," at least relative to express tolls. While HOT lanes may be a little unfair to the poor, they're not as unfair as funding transportation with sales taxes. Additionally, express lanes can decrease congestion in addition to generating revenue, which obviously sales taxes cannot.

That makes two solid reasons to believe that HOT lanes aren't entirely unfair to the poor, but this being a complicated subject, there are also many large caveats. For starters, HOT lanes perpetuate auto dependency in a metro region, and car-centered planning reduces the overall affordability of transportation — especially for low-income classes. Moreover, just because low-income people support and occasionally use HOT lanes doesn't mean they'd do so if a cheaper (and equally reliable) transit option were available. The best road pricing programs will set aside some revenue for alternative modes. 

HOT lanes may not be the worst of all possible urban transportation options, but it's worth remembering that they shouldn't be the only one, either.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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