No One Expects to Ride Transit for Free, So Why Should Roads Be Any Different?

If you're concerned about congestion, managed lanes, like the ones on U.S. 36, make sense. Image: Google Maps
If you're concerned about congestion, managed lanes, like the ones on U.S. 36, make sense. Image: Google Maps

Colorado lawmakers put forward a ballot measure Thursday that would raise $705 million a year for roads, transit, biking, and walking. At the last minute, they added a largely symbolic obstacle to “managed lanes” — which are available to high-occupancy vehicles or toll-payers.

A Denver Business Journal interview with Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt apparently unnerved House Speaker Crisanta Duran, one of the bill’s key sponsors. In the interview, Bhatt suggested that new highway lanes would include managed lanes — not new information, but it reemerged at a politically sensitive time. Duran amended the bill to ban building toll lanes with new tax dollars, unless they’re used to “increase travel time reliability and mitigate congestion,” among other exceptions.

The bill leaves plenty of room for toll lanes down the, er, road. As it should. But Colorado has to get over the instinctual and counterproductive aversion to asking people to pay for the roads they use.

When voters approved the FasTracks transit package, no one expected to ride the trains for free.

But there’s a pervasive myth that roads should be free because what drivers pay via the gas tax covers the full costs. That’s not the case. A sales tax hike won’t get us there, either, thanks to CDOT’s highway-widening addiction.

Nationally, gas taxes and tolls barely cover half of what governments spend on roads, according to the Tax Foundation. The rest comes out of general taxes, making road infrastructure heavily subsidized. Toll lanes are one way to stop propping up traffic-inducing road projects with public dollars.

HOV and toll lanes also incentivize buses and carpooling (like on U.S. 36), which helps move more people more efficiently. They smooth out traffic, too. Take CDOT’s I-70 mountain express toll lane, installed last year, which shortened travel time by 18 percent — for people who opted not to use it. By contrast, giving away additional highway lanes for free is just a recipe for congestion.

Of course, the most cost-effective, sustainable, and traffic-busting option is not to widen roads at all, and toll existing lanes.

  • TakeFive

    The net additional funding is actually estimated at $695 million:

    On Wednesday, Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, got Democrats to agree to attach an additional amendment that also eliminates controversial late fees that were added in 2009, reducing state revenues by about $20 million more per year.

    So roads are subsidized/paid for by taxpayers who want the roads to drive on? Shocking
    At least taxpayer/subsidized road users pay the heavy costs for their own wheels. Taxpayer/subsidized transit users pay but a pittance of their cost of wheels. I’d say it’s pretty dang nice of the majority of non-transit users to pony up for their heavily subsidized transit user neighbors.

    • Little Big City

      There are a lot of costs us non-drivers also pay. Like, for instance, our homes if they are in the right of way (see I-70 widening), or sacrificed air quality (again, see I-70 through Globeville/Elyria Swansea), or safe intersections anywhere throughout our cities (literally look anywhere).

      Additionally, this is a sales tax increase to pay to widen roads. Which means, even though I am opposed to roads for various reasons, not limited to the fact that they often induce additional sprawl that led to the loss of wilderness (over 525 square miles since 2000 in Colorado alone, second only to California ), I will still be paying to subsidize roads. Not to mention that in populated areas, like the front range and Denver metro area, car travel is the least efficient method of transportation (the bike being the most with walking and transit also being more efficient than cars). Zoning, federal building subsidies, etc. all subsidize sprawl and car use. So no, non-transit users are not being generous.

      Not to mention, this development pattern is bankrupting cities because, again, it is entirely inefficient ( ).

      Your reasoning is very consistent with a lot of the contemporary consensus on freeways and development, but unfortunately, it is inconsistent with the facts. First-in-class Phoenix and every other city/state that follows this model will eventually face serious predicaments in the near future as a result, and the economic shortfalls will fall on us, the taxpayer, regardless of whether we use or support the roads.

  • TakeFive

    FWIW, I currently reside In Phoenix which has built a First-in-Class freeway system (with one piece to go) with zero tolling lanes. Local resident/taxpayers would consider tolls double-taxation. I may not share the area’s politics but they sure know how to build and maintain transportation infrastructure. DRCOG’s sister in Phoenix/Maricopa County or MAG will make ~$22 billion in transportation investments over 20 years (from 2006). That includes their popular first 20-mile LRT line with a weekday ridership of ~59,000. You want nice things? Then fund them.

  • jcwconsult

    The ONLY reason for considering toll roads or toll lanes is the refusal of most state legislatures to adjust the fuel tax rates to cover the inflation on both the federal and state rates since last set, and index them for future inflation. Gutless legislators are at fault for our lack of enough revenue, collected fairly, to build and maintain our roads.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • LinuxGuy

      People DO ride transit for free, as they are the worst freeloaders around. Do they really think that $1 bus rides cover the actual expense of providing the service? Drivers pay a TON of money in gas taxes, fees, tolls, etc. There is plenty of road money available, but as usual, the government wastes it, and diverts it towards other non-driving things. People who use transit should thank drivers, who actually pay for transit. Instead of this, drivers are demonized.