Charles Komanoff

 

Should the L.I.E. Become a Toll Road?

Nassau County Executive (and NY State gubernatorial hopeful) Tom Suozzi landed in political hot water recently when he said that tolling Long Island highways might be a feasible way to curb traffic congestion and generate revenue for new transit projects. I ran into the same buzz-saw a decade ago when I published a piece in Newsday calling for a nickel-a-mile charge on Long Island driving. The paper asked five local muckamucks to weigh in, and most of them savaged the idea (see "Other Voices," below). None of them had been given my piece -- they were reacting to a one-sentence summary that an editor read to them over the phone. Still, confusion over road pricing, and of environmental tax-shifting in general, was and is endemic -- another indication of our constricted civic discourse.

-- C.K., June 8, 2006

NEWSDAY
Oct. 8, 1995

Long Island Topic: Should the L.I.E. Become a Toll Road?

Don't stop there, argues this economist. Make all the roads here "pay-as-you-go," and driving for dollars will fill Long Island's tax coffers and start to empty the highways.

By Charles Komanoff

All right, Long Islanders, are you ready for a blockbuster trade? Here's what you get: a 3 percent cut in the sales tax, trimming the current 8.25 percent rate to around 5 percent; and a big drop in traffic congestion and associated pollution, accidents and frayed nerves.

The price: For every mile you drive in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, you pay 5 cents. What's the deal? Cars and trucks travel 20 billion miles a year on Long Island, turning highways into parking lots and local streets into thoroughfares. But charge a price for driving, say 5 cents a mile, and two things will happen. First, government collects $1 billion a year, in return for which it slashes sales taxes the same amount. Second, motorist psychology will change. With pay-as-you-drive, you -- and your fellow motorists -- will start to economize on travel, freeing up road space and reducing traffic tie-ups.

Who wins? Almost everybody. To lose, you'd have to drive a lot, yet not care about constantly being stuck in traffic and breathing bad air. For most of us, who place a value on our time and our health, trading free miles for free-flowing roads would be a big plus.

Would traffic really diminish? Yes. A nickel a mile won't curb basic mobility; most Long Islanders will continue to get around by car; and essential trips, like driving grandma to the doctor, will still take place. But some of our discretionary travel would change.

Say your work commute is 30 miles each way; that'll cost $15 a week, incentive enough to carpool when it's not too inconvenient. On weekends you might gravitate to local shops rather than drive to a faraway mall. Paying for miles will affect long-term decisions too. Jobhunters will give preference to nearby vacancies. The town weekly may switch to a local printer, especially if a discount comes with short delivery.

People respond to prices -- that's how markets work. With road space offered free, collectively we travel more than our highways can handle. Raise the price -- in effect, offer rewards for driving less -- and most of us will find ways to cut back.

How much would traffic drop? Based on studies of travel demand in Southern California, charging 5 cents a mile could lead to around a 10 percent drop in volume. Congestion would decline even more, as traffic receded to road design levels. The trips we would still take would be faster and safer.

Best of all, under pay-as-you-drive, traffic would diminish as the sum-total of millions of private decisions by individual drivers. We would decide for ourselves which of our trips are worth paying for. The wealthy, who are least likely to be deterred by a mileage fee and who drive the most to begin with, would pay the most -- in effect underwriting the sales tax cut. The least mobile families, who are often the poorest, would get back more in tax savings than they would pay in mileage charges.

How would the nickel-a-mile fee be administered? It could be based on odometer readings at the annual safety inspection. We could charge visitors for driving here and exempt mileage by Long Island vehicles driven elsewhere. And heavy trucks could perhaps pay more per mile, since they cause more delays, pollution and road wear. Or, road sensors could scan windshield tags electronically, as is being done on a privately financed toll road that opened in Virginia last month. In fact, toll roads may be the wave of the future. Other states are considering them, as well.

Whether or not pay-as-you-drive is ready to go tomorrow in Long Island, we will want to take time for a full debate. A billion dollars in road fees is no small matter -- even when exchanged straight-up for lower sales taxes -- particularly when cherished conceptions of freedom and mobility are at stake.

But, in debating pay-as-you-drive, let's acknowledge that the automobile's proliferation has undermined the efficiency and self-expression that first motivated the car culture. Decades of pouring concrete have failed to restore the open road; and exhortations to leave the car at home have proven equally futile. Isn't it time we tried paying ourselves to drive less?

Charles Komanoff, a native Long Islander living in Manhattan, is an energy economist and a trustee of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. He was active in fighting the Shoreham nuclear plant.

OTHER VOICES

Absolutely not. First of all this is not an original idea. It was proposed three decades ago. This concept was never implemented for very good reasons. The suggestion that there are alternatives to the automobile is the first fallacy in this guy's thinking. If you wanted to penalize people who take automobiles into Manhattan, that would be different. But Long Island is vitally dependent on the automobile to the extent that about 90 percent of all travel trips are made [by car]. And they're made primarily by the people who have to work nine to five. So to penalize this class of people is regressive and inequitable. Another fallacy in this guy's thinking is that automobile drivers do contribute; they pay gasoline taxes of about 30 cents on the gallon -- one of the heaviest state gasoline taxes going. I find it fascinating that these ideas are only originated by Manhattanites who undoubtedly don't drive. -- Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board

That's a heavy tax that would be equivalent to about a dollar a gallon. It would fall most heavily on low- and middle-income people. Eighty percent of people who live here work here. You can't get to work by train. And most of the buses can't get you to work from your home. So I don't think [mass] transit is going to be able to solve that problem. I'm not sure that just a tax, in effect, on gasoline would push people into carpools; I have heard this talked about many times but it seems to me there are other ways that might be better. -- Richard DeTurk, president of Transportation Management, a non-profit organization based in Ronkonkoma.

Long Island is based around ill-conceived roadways. At the beginning, it didn't seem to really make a big difference; we could still keep building all the roads and shopping centers that were only reachable by automobile. Not that we seem to have maxed out, we have to address it. Definitely we would look forward to development planned with public transit and the pedestrian in mind, rather than catering to just the automobile. And I would love to see it go one step further. We have a lot of land that needs to be protected out here. And we need to see that five cents a mile whittle down the sales tax [and be used] for land preservation. -- Desiree Passantino, director of Act Now, a community group based in Wading River

I think it works in economic theory, but you'd be cutting working men and women off from their livelihoods. Most of them could not afford to pay five cents a mile; they're stretched thin as it is. If we had a public-transit alternative, you might be able to consider something like this. But our land-use patterns make it almost impossible to have effective public transit. I think it's a case in which something looks good in theory, and the theory that [Charles Komanoff's] proposing is the theory of congestion pricing. To eliminate congestion, simply reserve road space for those willing to pay for it. It works in theory but it would be a disaster in practice. -- Pearl M. Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association

There is no alternative to the automobile on Long Island, and his concept is an incredibly excessive tax on the automobile owner and user. Clearly it's a proposal made by somebody who doesn't live in the practical world. Americans are used to choices, good and bad, but the fact is, he's not offering a choice, he's making a demand that you do what he wants. And if you got all the people out of their cars, the LIRR couldn't handle it. They can hardly handle what they've got. -- Sheldon Schachter, chairman of the LIRR's Commuters' Council.