Higher tolls would hinder the already struggling

Jan. 6, 2021

This column published as "Furthering Disadvantage" in January 2021 issue

Traffic is down. Everywhere. This has been both good and bad. 

Primary among the bad is a dissociative increase in accidents and pedestrian incidents. In many parts of the country, drivers seem to think that the more open a road, the fewer rules they need to continue to adhere to. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, for example, pedestrian deaths are nearly double what they were last year—a staggering declaration. Jennifer Tramp, public information officer for the Department of Safety’s Office of Highway Safety, is quoted as saying, “We did see a lot of people outside, walking through residential neighborhoods and in areas you wouldn’t necessarily see them, on the side of busy roads. People are trying to get outside. More people since COVID have taken advantage of less vehicle volume on the roads and are taking more liberties like speeding, impaired driving, and driving unrestrained.”

Among the good is an ability for road and bridge maintenance operations and rehabilitation work to press forward at a more-than-usually accelerated clip—and along with the fewer vehicles on the road has come a reduced risk for workers out there doing their jobs.

But going back to the bad is, of course, dwindling dollars. Gas and toll revenue is down pretty much everywhere, and states are left with few options to augment their steadily drying coffers. Though there is now progressive talk on Capitol Hill of a stimulus package that will include billions for transportation systems, haven’t we heard this talk a number of times before with little to celebrate? I’m not saying this time it won’t come to fruition; it very well may, and I very much hope it does. But hope doesn’t help states with the practicality of red ink marred balance sheets.

So some states find themselves considering options that, while on the surface logical, will nonetheless inflict a financial burden on a very specific portion of their populace. 

Case in point: The state of Washington is considering increasing tolls to help pay off some of its largest road projects. Officials have said the state expects to collect $72 million less in toll revenue from the period March–October, a 45% decrease, which hampers its ability to pay off costly projects like the S.R. 520 bridge and the S.R. 99 tunnel, both of which have had their respective traffic levels halved.

Here’s the trouble: With many white-collar and gig workers still remote, the burden of this increased tolling will fall to essential workers (including health care and construction) and those lower-wage/hourly workers who, if they don’t physically get there, ain’t gonna get paid. These are the workers already suffering. They earn less.Many are from single-income households. Many have child care costs that those more fortunate do not need to sustain right now. These are people who cook our burgers, who restock our grocery shelves, who nurse the ill, who pave our roads and build our bridges, and who, as Orwell winkingly put it, keep the aspidistra flying.

There is no sense in unduly burdening this subset of society more than it already is. A smaller income- or commerce-based tax, levied on all, would be an equitable means of keeping DOTs afloat and reminding everyone we’re in this together, and together we must share the burden. 

About The Author: Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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