I Feel Like I Should Oppose the Opposition to Toll Roads on Principle

So, the conservatives of our fine state are up in arms because the governor wants to put in some toll roads and I’m really suspicious of anything the conservatives want that appears to make sense on the surface.

Are the opposing the toll roads because toll money is going to be used to provide healthcare for children?  Are the toll roads designed to slow down traffic in front of pre-k providers?  Just what is it that’s keeping the conservatives so angry?

Well, it rarely happens, but I have to tell you, I believe the conservatives are angry because this is just a stupid idea.  Why, you may ask, are toll roads in Tennessee a stupid idea?

1.  We are a state of many roads going to the same places.  If I, for instance, want to go to Dickson, I can get on about five different roads.  If it’s going to cost me money to get on one of those roads, I will just switch to another.

2.  Where are these toll roads going to go?  Because I’ve driven all over this state and the only stretch of road that seems to consistantly have enough traffic to support tolls is I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga.

3.  Ha, ha, ha, ha.  Do state legislators actually drive through our cities?  You think traffic is bad now, let’s make everyone stop every mile or two to pay a toll.

4.  Have our state legislators ever been to a toll booth?  In general, on busy interstates, you have twice as many toll lanes as you do regular lanes, if not more.  If you put tolls in or near cities, just where exactly are all these toll lanes going to go?

5.  If you don’t put tolls on busy roads, how is that cost effective?  How long will it take to offset the cost of putting in the tolls with the actual tolls paid?

6.  We are a poor state and almost every city in it has shitty public transportation.  Public transportation between cities is virtually non-existant.  Forcing people to pay tolls when they drive, when they have no other alternatives, is kind of a bullshit move.

Anyway, I wonder if any of you know where these proposed toll roads are supposed to go.  I’m very curious.

40 thoughts on “I Feel Like I Should Oppose the Opposition to Toll Roads on Principle

  1. One proposed toll road I have heard of is, over or near Old Hickory Dam linking Hendersonville and Old Hickory. While that would be a useful road to have, I am against toll roads. It is very creepy to agree with conservatives.

  2. Conservative here (as if no one realized that already) – The first few sentences of your post had me saying, OUT LOUD, “No! We hate it because it’s STUPID! And POINTLESS!” Then I reached that point in your post, and was relieved I wouldn’t have to try to convince anyone today. Har, har.

    Really, what’s funny is that they say no tolls will be imposed on any existing roads. So…they want to build roads for the express purpose of putting tolls on them…when…uh…the tolls will be paying for the construction of those roads…how does this make sense, again?

  3. I’m not ready to jump on the “Down wid Toll Roads” bandwagon…yet. I am concerned with the carte blanc “let’s study the hell out of every road we can install a toll booth on” idea.

    In cases where something like a new bridge across Old Hickory lake provides a more convenient option for a bunch of people, I’d say that a toll road makes some sense. The bridge isn’t absolutely necessary, but the time savings for those who would use it regularly makes it worth paying a $.50 per trip toll. It’s a little more ‘win-win’.

    As for delays? The electronic pass/scan systems used across the country alleviates a lot of the stop/go hassle for regular toll road users.

    I’m waiting for someone to add a “let’s sell wine at the toll booths” amendment… now there’s a revenue builder that would attract people to the toll roads! *smirk*

  4. Wait, wait, wait. They don’t want to put tolls on existing roads?! They want to build roads for the express purpose of putting tolls on them?!

    Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

    God, you know what this state needs? A legislative jester, someone to dress up in a funny costume and roam from legislative office to legislative office making fun of crap like this.

  5. This is what happens when you don’t raise revenues through income taxes — Tennesseeans don’t make enough money, on the whole, to make that little dribble of dividend and interest taxes pay for all the services that Tennessee people want and that incoming businesses demand. It’s what I think of as the Florida problem. When I was in Orlando, you basically can’t get anywhere without dropping a handful of change in a basket. It is a huge pain in the ass and messes up traffic not just on the big roads but on the little free roads. It also puts lots and lots of people under those tollbooth camera lenses. Not to be too tinfoil hat about it, but tollroads are excellent law enforcement opportunities to track license plates, driver whereabouts, and so forth. Yet another reason to hate tollroads.

    Yes, this is a dumb idea. On the other hand, what other strategies will Tennesseeans be willing to get behind to raise the money that it needs to educate its future workforce and attract businesses to enrich its economy? Unless we’re dispensing with the whole notion of trying to keep Tennessee out of the bottom quartile in every category on national indices of quality of life, I think that’s something that y’all are going to have to get your head around.

  6. Thre’s also the contrary thing B talked about yesterday. I like the fact that TN is always listed in “the handful of states that don’t do ‘x'”. That’s why I opposed the lottery – not for moral reasons, but because I like the fact that we do things differently here. This is also why you’ll NEVER see an income tax here. We’d rather pay .50 on the dollar sales tax than lose our status as a “non-income-tax” state.

    B has us pegged, when it comes to contrarianism.

    I love the fact that there are no toll roads in TN, and I’d like to keep it that way, so I can complain about all the toll roads when I travel elsewhere :)

  7. If you pay a 50% sales tax, you can kiss most manufacturing concerns goodbye, though I can see how Walmart might be all about that — it would be like running a company store.

    How do communities handle tax incentives in such a place? Here, the state or locality agrees to waive or reduce taxes for corporations for a specific period as part of the deal to get them to come in. As a method, it has its points and its flaws; personally, I’m not a fan, but it does work to pull in work and those workers then contribute taxes to support our local and state government. I’m guessing you try to attract business growth by keeping wages low and unemployment high. I am not seeing how this makes Tennessee a great place to live for the majority of people. Is the strategy to impoverish everyone to the point that they can’t move out?

  8. Hmmmm, as if the drive from Nashville to Memphis wasn’t horrible enough, there’s a lurking way to make it worse.

    Legislative jester? Excellent idea. I nominate Ophelia Ford, she’ s a regular clown.

  9. The only toll road around Atlanta is GA 400. Supposedly, the toll booths were to only be in place until the road had been paid for. Then it was announced that they had paid for it. That was several years ago and the booths are still there.

    Government never gives up money and it always wants more.

  10. Ah, memories of the NJ Turnpike. Or maybe “ah” isn’t the word I want.

    BTW, Slarti, I gotta ask you “waddaya mean, ‘we’?” Some of us here think an income tax would be a good idea, and one that will happen during our lifetimes.

  11. I seem to recall some coverage explaining that toll roads were being discussed to alleviate bad traffic – that why they’ll build new roads with tolls, because people will pay a little to travel faster. But I gotta ask, who thinks traffic in Nashville is really all that bad? Isn’t this just what city life if like, especially without adequate public transportation? Things get slow during rush hour, but that time doesn’t even last long. I don’t get it.

  12. Professor, I’ve also heard that and, again, I’m not clear on how they think that installing toll roads is going to mean faster travel, especially since traffic around here isn’t really that bad (and there are side streets that will get you around bad traffic when need be). I can see it for funding projects–like new roads–but like Exador says, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that those tolls are ever going to go away.

    Bridgett, I have no idea, frankly, what the people of Tennessee envision for themselves. I will say that I have never lived some place so devoted to helping rich people keep a hold of their money, no matter how much it hurts the folks who don’t have money. So, yeah, we have an outrageous sales tax, no money for anything, and everyone’s opposed to an income tax–even though it would mean lower taxes for most everyone–because it’s not “fair.”

  13. The “bad traffic” is a euphemism for how long it takes people who live outside of Davidson County to commute to and from work here. It doesn’t refer to traffic within Nashville at all. I predict that whether or not any toll roads are built, nothing will alleviate this terrible problem until the workplaces themselves are moved to the surrounding counties, thereby further impoverishing the city and forcing urbanites to do the commute in reverse, but that’s OK because the exurbs are more deserving, you know.

  14. Toll roads came up around here at TDOT because we can’t find enough money any more. All our state highway funds come from the gas tax and it apparently isn’t enough anymore. It would be suicide to propose raising the gas tax when gas costs 3.20 a gallon.

    Also, the Feds keep taking back what they said they were going to give us. Which is infuriating in itself because all that tax money they were going to give us came from here anyhow. We collect the gas tax in TN and send the federal portion to them. Then they send some of it back. But the last several years they’ve told us we won’t be getting as much back because of federal funding issues. Last year it was Iraq and Katrina cleanup. There was a big story about it in last Sunday’s Tennessean.

    No one is proposing putting tolls on existing roads because it would be political suicide. I’m not sure about the legalities either since it they were all paid for with tax money.

    So toll roads came up as a new funding option. I wouldn’t expect too many except in places where there isn’t a good road, like the bridge over the Cumberland between Old Hickory and Hendersonville.

    The hot thing right now is congestion pricing (or some similar term that escapes me right now). That means that we build new lanes on existing roads and control access to those new lanes. So you build a lane on I-65 up to Rivergate, but you put a barrier between it and the rest of the lanes. Then if the regular lanes are stopped up with traffic commuters can pay a fee to get into the lane without traffic. In some places the fee changes daily depending on how much traffic is on the road. So the toll lane would be cheap during the non-rush time, but the price goes up during rush hour, and could go up even more if there is an accident completely stopping traffic. Of course that runs into the problem that the Professer mentioned, but if the tolls are cheap some people will use them. Plus, but the time we got that system in place traffic would be a lot worse.

    I would totally pay a toll in order to use Ellington Parkway instead of I-65 north from downtown. Traffic is so much better during rush. Situations like that are what they’re looking for.

    The rationale being…. you can get there for free, or you can pay a premium to get there fast. A lot of the executive staff at TDOT just doesn’t see any other option for raising money to build, so toll roads are the way they’re going.

    It could get interesting if they start allowing private roads. Then any company can come in and try to build a road and charge people to use it. That gets ugly in terms of emminent domain and buying property for a road.

  15. But I gotta ask, who thinks traffic in Nashville is really all that bad?

    Evidently you don’t travel on I-24 between Antioch and downtown! Many days it takes over an hour to travel 15 miles.

    I might be willing to pay a toll for a more direct route between Northern Rutherford County and the Cool Springs area. Can’t think of any other reason…

  16. bridgett – I was exaggerating to make a point.
    A rhetorical device, if you will. But you have to admit, in the year of the horn-honking, the public reaction to to the largest sales tax increase in history as opposed to the reaction to the income tax proposal (which would have roughly raised the same amount of revenue), tells me that it wasn’t the money per se, it was the idea of an income tax. We can be stubborn that way.

    Didn’t they take away the earmark for TDOT a few years ago? At the time, I said it was an extremely short-sighted move. We had the best roads in the country up till that point.

  17. You mean that all the people I talk to who strategize about how to get an income tax here are lying to me?

  18. Slartibartfast,

    Governor Bredesen got the Legislature to tap into the Road Fund for tens of millions of dollars over the first three or four years of his administration. For years the gas tax had been designated to roads, bridges etc so that Tennessee had a ‘pay as you go’ system with no bonds. The Governor’s shifting has left numerous projects un-funded.

    Now many reasonable people will argue that this approach, while fiscally responsible, has resulted in excessive construction since the Legislators and road builders love to spend every dollar every year. Until recent years West Tennessee, despite falling population, had a disproportionate share of road funds because the leadership in both Houses was based in West TN.

    The best argument for selective toll roads seems to be that they would use money raised locally for projects that mostly benefited local interests. The bridge over the Cumberland mentioned above seems a good example.

    Kentucky has used toll roads quite effectively to build regional parkways that opened up areas of the state for economic development. And, they have now removed many of the tolls, the costs of roads having been paid off. Some are even quite beautiful drives.

  19. OK, OK, nm – my attempts at humor sometimes fall short.

    B – although the State of TN, UT, and Vanderbilt are some of the largest single employers in the state, they represent a fration of the overall workforce. The rest of us (millions of us) work for rich people, or evil corporations.

    Asking us to “stick it to the rich” is asking us to harm the people who sign our paychecks. Ask the folks in Michigan how that works out.

    Maybe we are smarter at self-preservation than we look.

  20. Mark, I just don’t believe that we could count on Tennessee to take down the tolls when they’re done. Maybe I’m cynical, but it seems to me that Kentucky has taken a long hard look at its problems as a state and worked–yes, in a somewhat herky-jerky manner–to improve things. But if we raid the road funds to pay for other things now, why would we not continue to raid the road funds to pay for other things later, since we would know we can count on those funds to keep coming in?

    Slarti, I think the folks in Michigan would prefer GM get its head out of its butt about designing forty thousand dollar muscle cars when gas is $3.50 a gallon and that the price of corn might come down, thus making the cost of producing cereal come down as well.

    But out of the crowd of folks I know up there, I don’t know any of them who would do away with their state income tax if it meant having to live like we do.

  21. Aunt B.,

    I don’t disagree. I was just pointing out the background.

    “But if we raid the road funds to pay for other things now, why would we not continue to raid the road funds to pay for other things later, since we would know we can count on those funds to keep coming in?”

    That is a point that Conservatives and Republicans have constantly made with no attention from the media. Some critics would, for example, cite the record ‘rainy day fund balance’ as a myth since so much of it is effectively the result of redirection of money from the road fund.

    The road fund is a mixed blessing too. Environmentalists and fiscal conservatives will argue that Tennessee’s system results in considerable unnecessary construction and maintenance (constant repaving even when not needed) in order to spend each year’s road fund rather than saving some for larger investments like mass transit (not as lucrative for road builders).

    The road fund also encourages suburban sprawl by providing money for roads that would not exist except to cut the cost of new developments. Small local roads that open up areas for new developments ought to be paid for by developers rather than by the road fund. Then the cost of the houses would more accurately reflect the cost of development.

  22. Small local roads that open up areas for new developments ought to be paid for by developers rather than by the road fund. Then the cost of the houses would more accurately reflect the cost of development.

    YES, and they should also pay increased tap fees, and while we are at it, build schools as well. Reckless development has put our schools in a constant state of fund raising.

  23. As one living in suburban sprawl, I think that the only stopgap to growth is to make it such a damn pain in the ass. If you make the commute easier, more people will commute, and from farther away.
    ad infinum

  24. Exador,

    I have no problem with ‘sprawl’ per se. I object to government making other people pay for it.

    Mack is right in that new housing costs ought to include long-term costs like schools and infrastructure. To be sure, this would increase the cost of new homes but only to the extent that they reflect unsubsidized costs.

  25. That’s the conclusion about sprawl that we reached up here. The big impetus to sprawl in the Albany metro area was building ridonkulous 8 lane highways in, out, and through — Nelson Rockefeller had the idea that we were going to be New Brasilia and move the power in the state back up the Hudson away from NYC. As if. All it really did (other than bulldozing a huge hole through the heart of black and Italian neighborhoods and destroying a shitload of 17th century architecture) was allow all the wealth to leak out of town and into the suburbs and neighboring counties. You can live 40 miles out in Saratoga County and still have a 45 minute commute to center city. Gas prices are now biting suburbanites in the ass in a big way, but city schools have really been hard hit by thirty years of shifting tax revenue.

    We can’t unbuild the roads (and since industry and tech follow ease of distribution, who would want to?), but urban planners are trying to use the gas price/property value perfect storm to rebuild the city’s attractiveness as a place for middle-class family living. Our planners are trying to attract retail and commercial businesses back to the city center; there’s something precious, on the one hand, about the resurgence of shoppes (looks like a cute bomb went off in some parts of town) but on the other hand, it’s making it possible for families like mine to live with one car and use a tank of gas every three weeks or so.

  26. Yes, nm, I think it just might be the end of days. I actually agree with Mack’s idea, although it might seem to be kind of liberal on the surface. It’s actually smart (and conservative IMHO) – pay as you go, and ask the people directly to pay for the impact they have on the infrastructure.

    Maybe it’s not even political, but common-sense.

  27. Interesting discussion. Roads are a quasi-public good. The two considerations, when characterizing the nature of a good, are excludability and rivalry in consumption. A good is excludable if those who don’t pay for consumption can be excluded from consumption. It is easy to exclude people when it comes to the consumption of something like ice cream – you don’t pay for it so you can’t consume it. The ability to exclude people from the “consumption” or use of roads depends on the particular road. Often it is very costly, unworkable really, to exclude those who don’t pay. There is rivalry in consumption when one’s consumption diminishes the ability of another to consume – if I eat the ice cream that means you can’t eat it. Usually roads are non-rival in consumption – I can drive down the road even as those in front of me and behind me drive on it. However, there can be congestion – so many are consuming a road at the same time that they get in the way, their consumption of the road does impede my ability to consume.

    A gas tax is a pretty effective user-fee type tax. Those who drive more cause greater deterioration and will pay more for maintanance via the gas tax. There is a powerful argument, on efficiency grounds, for toll roads and bridges. If it is relatively easy to exclude consumers then why not just privatize the construction and maintanance of some roads… and all bridges. The state should play a roll in quality control.

    Generally I favor toll roads and bridges, as well as congestion pricing but the theory can, and does, deviate from reality, and that depends on implementation. Generally in the case of private goods the state should stay out of the way. Markets are very efficient. With pure pubic goods – national defense, local law enforcement, street lights etc, markets fail and state intervention improves efficiency. With quasi-public goods, and there are many examples, it can get quite tricky. Partisan approaches don’t tend to help or even add much to the debate.

    Consider swimming pools. Markets can, and do, provide swimming clubs, but there is a powerful argument to be made for subsidizing community pools in low-income areas… they are quasi-public goods.

    Long post but this whole policy area is really fascinating and lends itself to flawed analysis.

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  31. The road fund also encourages suburban sprawl by providing money for roads that would not exist
    These days the road fund is barely sufficient to encourage the bridges you drive over to not fall down. That’s many times the majority of roadwork TDOT does these days. Replacing old infrastructure.

    No one likes sprawl, but there aren’t that many good alternatives either. Other than just not allowing new residents the only option that comes to mind is increasing population density. That’s just a lovely option. I prefer my neighbors on the other side of the fence rather than living above and below me with their loud music.

  32. Oh yeah, forgot to addresss one thing.

    There were a few years of raiding the highway fund and transfering it to the general fund. But then they started putting part of it back. The FY 07-08 budget actually went the other way. 15 million came out of the general fund and went to fund TDOT.

    You can get some interesting info here. Check the link that says ‘budget comparison’ to see how much came out of the highway fund. And how much was put back. Overall about 98 mill has gone out since FY 2006 and about 27 mill has come back. Most of it this year.


  33. See, and this is my problem with turning roads to toll roads (well, one of them). As a community (in this case, a state) we have a responsibility for putting in and maintaining roads. We all need them–to travel on and for commerce. The community should sufficiently fund the things it needs; it shouldn’t be able to say “Oh, well, sure, we all like having roads, but because most of us aren’t going to use that road, it’s okay for us to burden this particular segment of the community with the burden of paying for it.

    If you want a smaller community to pay for it, make it the town’s job to maintain it. Otherwise, if it’s a state job, the state (meaning us all) needs to step up and fund it.

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