News & Politics » Letters

Cost of Driving



To the editors:

I enjoyed the interview of Robert Belcaster of the CTA [December 11].

Mr. Belcaster does as good a job as we can expect, given the constraints on the CTA. But I reject the assumption--which he doesn't challenge--that mass transit has to be subsidized and can't possibly be funded out of the fare box.

Why can't it?

Well, because transit's competitor--the automobile--is so heavily subsidized. And it has to be that way, we are told, because it is obviously impractical for urban expressway and street users to be charged individually. The mind boggles at the thought of tollbooths at every expressway entrance and exit, let alone at every street intersection. So we must rely on gasoline taxes (which ignore when and where a car is used) and general taxes (which spread the load on everybody, including transit users).

Here's a radical proposal: Instead of subsidizing both roads and mass transit, let's subsidize neither.

This is now practical, because technology now allows us to charge car owners individually for their actual use of expressways and streets.

Build into each license plate an identification microcircuit (powered by a small battery that lasts a year or two, until the plate is replaced). At each expressway entrance and exit a detector interrogates the plate as it goes by and relays its number to a central computer. Mileage is calculated and charged to the owner on a monthly bill, just like long-distance phone calls. ("ABC-123 enters Dan Ryan at 35th southbound; exits at 95th; total distance 7.5 miles; at 20/mile, charge $1.50.")

I have heard that such a system is used in, I believe, Singapore, although for traffic control, not revenue.

Once the system proved itself on one expressway, it could be extended to others, and perhaps eventually to all roads and streets. Of course the rates would vary according to the costs of building and maintaining various kinds of roads, and perhaps also by time of day to encourage optimum usage. (We can imagine many interesting ramifications, such as real estate developers offering a low street-mileage rate as an inducement to live in their developments. And the police could ask the central computer exactly where a stolen car is. The computer would also call the cops if a car went by without plates.)

A private expressway company would have to pay not only the full cost of building and repairing the road, but also for traffic control, emergency towing, cleaning, snow plowing, and all other necessary services--and recover all those costs from the drivers.

Even more important, it should have to pay its full share of taxes, including real estate and property taxes on its land and structures. (Similarly, a private transit company should pay real estate and property taxes, and also pay the road company mileage charges for the buses. Nobody gets a free ride.)

What would a private expressway have to charge to stay in business? God only knows, but at a wild guess, at least 20 cents per mile. (A letter by economist William Vickrey, Science, volume 175, pp. 1417-1418, 31 March 1972, estimated that urban expressways subsidize rush-hour drivers at least six cents per car mile, just for the difference in cost of sizing an expressway to handle rush-hour loads instead of average loads. And there has been a lot of inflation since then.)

There are so many hidden subsidies and cross-subsidies to both roads and mass transit that it is impossible to know how the real costs would compare if both had to be operated as real businesses. But I suspect that mass transit would come out much cheaper. Let's find out.

George W. Price

W. Chase

Add a comment