Friday, May 6, 2011

Well, actually, I think it's a good idea

A bizarre allegation has surfaced. Obama plans to install a device in every car in the country, that'll measure the number of miles you drive. Then you'll have to pay per mile. What an evil genius!

It's bollocks, of course, Obama has no intention of doing anything of the sort. It's too unpopular, of course.

But, here's a question. Is it reasonable to charge road users by something related to the number of miles they drive? Is there a cost to each mile driven, and if so, is the way we raise the revenue needed to pay that cost fair?

Right now, roads are massively subsidized. Absurdly subsidized. Part of the reason why people live in the middle of nowhere, by default, in most parts of the country is because taxpayers pay a fortune to have roads built to the middle of nowhere, so that homes can be built in those locations and people can live there.

In the US, there's a small amount of revenue collected at the pump that in theory is related to the number of miles driven, but it doesn't cover the full costs of road building, which generally comes out of a basket of local, state, and federal taxes, and while anything that reduces oil usage is a positive thing, the costs of road usage aren't lower simply because you drive a Prius. What are the costs? More than you might think. Railroads are worth mentioning here: they're privately owned in the US, and so we can look at the costs involved and ask what equivalents there are with ordinary roads.

Railroad operators, at least today, need to buy land to build their tracks upon. They have to pay property taxes to compensate communities for the land they continue to use. They also have to build and maintain the right of way. And each decision about where to build a line to has to be taken using a full cost benefit analysis, they can't build lines to the middle of nowhere on a whim that the road might be useful one day.

For governments building roads, very few equivalent costs exist. Governments don't pay property taxes, they collect them, leading to the absurdity that railroads in the US actually subsidize normal roads. Generally, governmental entities will measure the cost of a road simply in terms of the cost of building it, and the cost of maintaining it. And if nobody uses that road, well, the road will be undamaged, and so it'll be assumed that the "cost" of keeping the road around is negligible.

Now, suppose you want a sane transportation policy. Wouldn't a "users-pay" philosophy make the most amount of sense, with the "cost" associated with each transportation system being measured in a consistent way? You'd limit the road budget, forcing road builders to actually weigh the costs of building out roads when doing so. You'd prevent one form of transportation system dominating others for any reason other than superiority.

Now, before I go any further, I want to emphasize I'm not talking about Obamodometers. Leaving aside privacy concerns, I don't think such a system would necessarily produce the fairest outcome. What I'd like to see, instead, is a system based upon a combination of private and community road ownership. Essentially, roads would either be owned by their users (usually in the form of communities owning their local roads), or owned by private entities who'd use whatever revenue generation method they wish.

I'm not talking about raising taxes, rather redistributing how we collect them. Making road users responsible for roads reduces the need to make local, state, and Federal governments involved in them, which means other taxes can be cut. In the medium term, you'd see, over-all, a lower tax burden, because the stupidity of building bad roads, and penalizing companies that take traffic off of roads, would be drastically curtailed.

These kinds of reforms can't be done in isolation. They have to be accompanied with planning reform so that the absurdity of requiring businesses be housed in buildings built miles away from the employees and customers they serve can be finally ended. You can't simply require road users pay the costs, you also have to ensure they can escape high road costs by reducing their cost burden.

That's what I think anyway.

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