How the free road lobby led us astray

Lawrence Solomon
Financial Post
May 30, 2000

Wrong turn left us with too many roads, too high taxes. Canada has too many roads, and Canadians spend too much money building them. All told, according to StatsCan, roads and road vehicles account for almost 20% of total investments in the economy, making them one of our largest sectors. Yet our road system is nevertheless in serious disrepair — the Canadian Automobile Association estimates 50% of our highway system needs refurbishing — and gridlock threatens to paralyze our major centres. The road lobby’s answer? Build new roads, rebuild old ones, do it on the double and keep roads free — the same road map that brought us to the dead end we’re at. Free roads don’t provide the economic signals needed to determine what roads are needed and when; they allow politicians to build pet roads devoid of economic rationale. If we tolled our roads, instead of funding them through gasoline taxes, property taxes and general government revenues, we’d have fewer but better-maintained roads, we’d have fewer two-car families and we’d tend to drive our one car far more economically. The Canadian Automobile Association sees things differently. It treats automobile mobility as a right and claims congestion is caused by too few roads, not by too many cars freeloading on free roads. The CAA wants to boost spending on road construction and maintenance dramatically. A 1998 federal study pegged the cost of upgrading the national highway infrastructure at $17-billion. The CAA, if it costed out its requests to expand the full road system, might be asking for $170-billion.The CAA has company in demanding that governments rev up the concrete mixers and lay more asphalt. That’s also the demand of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, the Canadian Portland Cement Association, engineers, organized labour and other groups, many of them organized by the Canadian Construction Association into a lobby group called the Coalition to Renew Canada’s Infrastructure. Pointing out that the number of cars on the road rose by more than 20% between 1986 and 1998 while road length increased by only 7%, and that the United States is about to spend $300-billion revamping its transportation system, road lobbyists claim that the Canadian economy needs more roads. They also claim — through sleight-of-hand accounting — that governments rake in more money from gasoline taxes and other “user” fees than they spend on roads. To arrive at this conclusion, they exaggerate governments’ take from fuel taxes, for example by assuming the normal provincial sales tax shouldn’t apply to gasoline. And they ignore basic costs, such as the cost of financing the roads. A fuller accounting, as detailed in a 1999 report for Transport Canada, shows that drivers don’t fully pay their way, even ignoring indirect costs such as noise pollution and vehicle emissions.

You’d expect environmental groups, social activists and anti-car lobbies to promote measures that raise the costs of highways. But opposition to the highway lobby’s free ride also comes from the libertarian Cato Institute, a Washington-based organization that strongly promotes the free enterprise system and holds no distaste for the private automobile. In an exhaustive scholarly work by Robert L. Bradley entitled Oil, Gas, and Government, Cato documents the U.S. road lobby’s relentless role in seeing to the overbuilding of the U.S. highway system. Fifty years ago, organizations such as the American Automobile Association, trucking associations, the Asphalt Institute, the American Concrete Paving Association and the Big Three automakers banded together to promote “scientifically based, tax-free road building.” Their massive lobbying campaign in the 1950s swayed Congress to fund the largest public works program in U.S. history, 41,000 miles of interstate highway. To obtain congressional support, the highway system passed through 406 of the 435 congressional districts.

Free roads had high costs. “With full road pricing, transportation would have shifted to mass transit and other modes such as trains and airplanes. With fewer vehicles, particularly passenger cars, less lead, carbon monoxide and ozone-producing hydrocarbon pollution would have occurred. This would have improved air quality, particularly in major urban areas … With greater transportation economies, motor-fuel prices could also have been lower for vehicle owners and for consumers across the energy spectrum,” concludes Mr. Bradley.

The free road movement in the U.S. in the 1950s arose just in time to squelch a major threat: the toll road movement, whose popularity alarmed the U.S. Public Road Administration and other government officials committed to conventional roads. After the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Maine Turnpike proved popular with the driving public in the 1940s, pay roads swept the United States in the 1950s, with 2,500 miles built in 16 states. The trend then spread north to Quebec. The free road lobby’s success sent our transportation system on a detour that has lasted half a century.

Toll roads are now back — many are on the drawing boards in Canada and the United States. And so is the free road lobby.

Reader’s Response

Related articles:
Toll roads v. the Canadian Accident Association
London’s green streets
Toll skeptics be damned: London’s rolling
The toll on business
The take from tolls
Don’t tax, toll: Presentation to the Canadian Home Builders’ Association
London unjammed
Don’t tax, toll
How the free road lobby led us astray
Toll road commentary
Road safety
How to cut highways’ human toll

Toll today’s roads, don’t build more

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