By Peter Roff
In the United States, governments at all levels are trying, through environmental restrictions and energy policy, to impose restrictions on the mobility of the American people. By making it more expensive to operate a motor vehicle they are, in a kind of obtuse way, trying to discourage people from driving.
At the same time they are looking at cars and trucks as "cash cows" that can help provide additional revenues generated by fines and fees much in the same way government depends on the money generated by tobacco taxes while at the same time actively and aggressively trying to discourage people from smoking.
In Washington, D.C., the use of so-called "speed cameras" is becoming more common as the city tries to find creative ways to bring in more money rather than find savings by pruning back its often wasteful and bloated bureaucracy. Though city officials talk about this effort as one that will make the roads safer, most everyone believes they are really more interested in the revenue that can be generated by fining speeders than they are in safety.
As time passes, governments are growing bolder. The North Carolina Department of Transportation, for example, is attempting to manipulate a federal pilot program in such a way as to allow it to put tolls on Interstate 95 in order to fund an estimated $4.4 billion expansion of one of the nation's major north-south arteries and to pay for other improvements and maintenance.
In an ideal world that would not be much of a problem. There are many economists and academics who believe the fairest way to fund construction and maintenance on the nation's roads is to have those that use them pay for them directly through tolls. Except that in the United States, the construction, expansion, and upkeep of federal highways like I-95 are supposed to be funded out of the highway trust fund which draws its revenue from the federal gasoline tax.
North Carolina's request to put tolls on the interstate amounts to double-taxation, with people being taxed twice for something they have already paid for once. It's unfair and it's wrong, something that has not escaped the notice of freshman Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, who represents the Tarheel State's Second Congressional District.
Ellmers has introduced legislation--H.R. 4174--to block her state from placing tolls on I-95. Her bill, the "No Tolls in North Carolina Act of 2012," has the support of various groups like the American Bus Association, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the American Frozen Food Institute, the American Motorcyclist Association, and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.
Part of the reason the states are in a fix as far as highway money is concerned is that Congress has been diverting money from the highway trust fund into what are known as "general revenues," meaning they can and are being spent on everything. According to studies undertaken by the John Locke Foundation, a think tank based in Ellmers's state, "Since 1990, a total of nearly $4 billion in proceeds from North Carolina gas and car taxes have been spent on transit or General Fund programs," Ellmers said in a letter to her congressional colleagues.
"It is clear that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) did not demonstrate that these improvements could be implemented without a toll as required by law," Ellmers said after she introduced her bill. "While our highways need to be updated to meet growing needs and usage, North Carolina taxpayers should not have to bear further burdens after paying one of the highest gas taxes in the country."
Consider the perverse incentives such a move would generate. It would be inflationary, increasing ground transportation costs in a way that would lead to higher prices for anything shipped by truck. It would also force traffic off the interstate onto secondary roads, because consumers and markets are rational even when governments are not. People would quite obviously alter their driving patterns in order to avoid the tolls at every opportunity.
Congress needs to take this matter seriously. What North Carolina wants to do would set a dangerous precedent that could easily be replicated elsewhere if the state's request to impose tolls on I-95 is successful. It is bad policy. Congress should say "No."