Illinois Route 14 heads east out of Crossville, a rigging town with the noxious air of energy about it. The gently rolling fields of corn are punctuated by oil wells. The road flattens into a straight stretch of tall treed, low lying swamp on either side as it approaches theWabash. A small toll booth rests on a rise of the road just before the bridge. Two women sat there; they appeared to be mother and daughter. There was no traffic, so we were inclined to talk. “We get about 800 cars a day” the older woman explained when I inquired about the demand on the bridge.
I paid my quarter (yes, there is a listed toll for bicycles) and I rode over the bridge; the worst stretch of pavement on my entire trip. Still it beat going six miles north to cross the river at Interstate 64, and farm equipment that is not allowed on the Interstate can cross at this bridge.
Turns out the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, mostly due to its connection to New Harmony, IN. It was built in 1930 by a consortium out of Carmi,IL without any federal funds, hence the toll. Apparently it does a little better than break even, which made me think the job of toll collector was not a lucrative one. Sometime soon the road surface will need to be repaved; the bridge has also been declared structurally insufficient, whatever profit there is from tolls will not cover the millions of dollars in necessary repairs, so the bridge faces a future of mothballing or an infusion of public funds. Whatever the future holds, there is some value to the fact that for over seventy years the bridge has paid its own way.
I like tolls. I don’t like to pay them any more then the next guy, but I like the direct connection they create between a public amenity and those who use it. The most transparent way to correlate the cost and benefit of any social good is to assign a price to it, and tolls do that well. They are not perfect; I would have paid more than a quarter to cross that bridge. Still, the bridge commission got a quarter from me for a half mile stretch of lousy pavement, while I paid nothing to directly compensate for my use of the other 3,000 miles of roads I traversed.
The more that government can ascribe tolls (user fees) to amenities that are quantifiable, the better understanding we have between a service and its cost. Ideally, the fees in aggregate equal the cost of delivering the service. What differentiates a toll from another tax is that the citizen can choose whether to pay the toll and access the service, or not.
Besides directly paying for specific services, tolls can be a tool to adjust demand. Far away from the banks of the Wabash, drivers who want to bring their automobiles into Central London must pay a toll. This has little to do with the actual cost of maintaining the paved streets in London, it is to control traffic in the city. Therefore the toll serves a dual purpose; reducing the number of cars in London while generating revenue to the government.
Sales taxes, which are rampant in theUnited States and can be assessed at the state, county, or city levels, are sometimes like tolls, but not always. Where sales taxes are set only on ‘optional’ items, like luxury goods or meals in restaurants, they are similar to tolls. Specialty taxes on cigarettes and alcohol and hotel rooms are targeted sales taxes that generate revenue from people who are buying something that, presumably, they can do without. The particulars get muddy; smokers are often addicted so they do not perceive cigarettes as optional and hotel taxes extract revenue from visitors who have no voice in the local government, but the concept is valid. However, where sales taxes are applied across all purchased items, they do not function like tolls because people do not have an option to avoid them. As long as bread is a necessity in life, a sales tax on bread is a pure tax.
The reason why tolls are good as a direct alignment between cost and benefit is exactly why people do not like them. We like to think that we live in this country for free and hate being nickeled and dimed by taxes at every turn.
Before the Interstate highway system was built, many states had limited access expressways with tolls to offset their construction and operation. When the Interstate system was proposed to create a complete network of highways, it is unfortunate that tolls were not integrated into the entire system. They could have been used not only to build the highways but to maintain them as well. Fifty plus years later we have massive infrastructure problems and are strapped for resources to fix them. In Oklahoma, where I lived for many years, the network of toll roads is probably the most extensive in the country, but people in the mostly rural state like having major highways even if the traffic volume does not justify the cost. They are willing to pay tolls for the convenience of four lane highways between small cities and towns. In every case there is the option of a parallel two lane route, but most people choose to pay the toll.
My quarter over the Wabash was money well spent. If there had been other tolls along the way, I would have paid willingly.