While I’ve spent much of this week on the blog bickering over high-speed rail funding, I’ve noticed a thread emerge that speaks to all forms of transportation, especially the ubiquitous solo vehicle commute.
Time and time again, public transportation advocates, who are fighting for nickles and dimes in Sacramento in these days of $15 billion budget holes, tell me that driving isn’t free. Roads and highways aren’t free.
Yes, even freeways aren’t free.
Every year, state and local governments pay billions of dollars for the upkeep of our roads and highways. You know that guy in the orange vest you almost hit while sending text messages last week? He fills your potholes and he gets a much-deserved salary.
It’s a sad fact, however, is that there isn’t nearly enough money to maintain our bridges and highways properly. Some people have even suggested that this could help us understand why bridges fall down sometimes, but I don’t want to jump to hasty conclusions.
We Americans can’t seem to get our arms around the idea that such government expenditures require us citizens to contribute a larger chunk of our incomes, just as citizens in the rest of the developed world do.
But there’s no point in arguing about that. I don’t see that changing any time soon. Not to mention, I, too, like the idea of keeping more of my money and I’m starting to get anxious about my stimulus payment.
Over the last year, I’ve discovered that where transportation is concerned, both our government in Washington and I have come up with viable solutions. What’s really exciting about this is that the D.C. solution has both Republican and Democratic backers.
It’s probably no great surprise to faithful readers of this blog that I’m talking about tolls. It will start with what we in the Bay Area like to call HOT lanes, or high-occupancy toll lanes.
While making the rounds in Sacramento with transit lobbyists for the Transportation and Land Use Coalition on Tuesday, Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, called them “Lexus Lanes” with a chuckle.
I once called them that, too. But they may be our only hope when it comes to raising money for transportation, followed by tolls to enter urban areas, which London is already doing with great effect, and then tolls for just entering any interstate.
Transportation officials from U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on down recognize the sorry state we’ve descended to when it comes to funding our network. They’ve been joined by environmentalists, who want motorists to feel what transit users have always felt: The financial pinch of deciding to go anywhere.
There is one thing that might stave off this trend in California, and that’s the likelihood of $7-a-gallon gas within the next few years. That will mean a huge surplus of gasoline sales tax, which is supposed to pay for transportation. Unfortunately, those much-needed funds are being tapped by our state government for lack of the electorate’s will to raise money for other programs.
So look for our national obsession with driving to become something of a luxury, like belonging to a country club or plying the Bay in a sailboat. If it’s any consolation, remember that “freeways,” will always be free. Free of intersections, free of stop signs and lights, except the one that says “ETC OK.”