Monday 16 May 2011

Empty arguments against tolling in San Diego

A columnist called John Van Doorn in the North County Times in San Diego is opposing proposals for a new toll road to bypass a congested section of the I-5.  The arguments against tolls are nothing new, and easily refuted.  Indeed three comments on the column already make good points in response.  

This is what he argues, with my response

1.  Toll booths add to delays:  It is wilful blindness to ignore electronic free flow tolling, even though deployment in the US has been glacial.  This argument should be left in the 20th century where this thinking belongs.  Any new toll road in the USA should be built with electronic free flow technology in mind.

2. Studies claim collection costs can be up to one-third of revenues:  I can say "studies show journalists rarely are experts in things they write about", without quoting a study.  Any toll road with such high costs is either grossly inefficient, heavily underpriced or is not viable (for having too little traffic).  Efficient operations today of any toll road should manage costs well below 10% of revenues. 

3. If there isn't congestion, more will use the free original road congesting that route:  So it is better to not have a new route then?  It is entirely circular.  If the current route is congested, the toll route will relieve it.  It wont be empty, so it benefits users of the original route.  You might believe a new route could induce demand, but if tolled that will put a price on that and besides demand could always increase on the untolled route regardless.  The solution is to price ALL roads efficiently, but Van Doorn shows scant knowledge of economics so he wouldn't consider that.

4. Motorists would be tracked:  After implying a toll road means manual collection, he then jumps on an assumption made for electronic tolls.  It is also empty.  Electronic free flow toll roads are charged usually through a tag and beacon system that only identifies a vehicle crossing a particular point so the account associated with it can be charged.   It reads number plates in other systems either to charge or for enforcement purposes.  It isn't tracking, it is no different from paying for your shopping with a card, leaving a record of your presence in a shop at a particular time.  Yes, in theory if done by government entities they would know that you had, driven past a point at a particular time, but that isn't tracking.  Automatic number plate recognition cameras could be placed all over road networks to do this, and mobile phones do it more effectively than conventional electronic tolls.   Now it is more complex if GPS and distance charging are involved, but that isn't what is being discussed and even if it was, it doesn't involve tracking either.  It involves measuring distance.

Tolling has many opponents, typically they are people confused with technology, with little understanding of transport economics, but also understandably sceptical of government agencies running toll roads.  There are good reasons to be resistant of politicians incompetently using tolls as a quick fix, but not to resist tolling per se.  Tolls can be a low-cost and efficient way of raising funds for new roads and maintaining existing ones, and debate about tolls should be about their viability, not on the basis of ill-informed presumptions.

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