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Reforming Maryland Peter Samuel on 21 Jan 2015 11:38 am

A Smart & Fair Transportation Vision For New MD Governor (Part I)

Governor Larry Hogan should enunciate two key objectives for state transport agencies, objectives that good government demands across the board — fairness and efficiency.

Fairness and efficiency will be best served by moving toward transport systems that self-finance with user fees: more precisely, fees-for-use roads should finance themselves with fees based on the cost of providing road service, road use fees, or tolls based on the distance traveled, the scarcity of road space, and the costs the vehicles impose.

For the first time modern technology allows this to be done free flow.

And transit too should pay its way with fares.  The new governor should articulate this as his ideal, something not capable of being immediately implemented but as something we should be moving toward. The objective should be to steadily cut back and eventually eliminate the use of taxes and license fees for transportation.

Governor Hogan could propose immediate cuts in license fees. These should only finance vehicle inspections and operation of the motor registries. They are being misused when they are made a source of revenue. As revenue sources they unfairly penalize the people who make minimal use of the roads and transit.

Users should be paying according to use — this should be governor’s Hogan’s message.

Such a market-based strategy of self-financing road and transit providers would contain costs to the value of service provided and customers’ willingness to pay for service.

Road service and transit service also need to be viewed as self-financing service businesses rather than as tax-funded pork to be butchered and divided up by special interests and politicians.

The new governor should ask the General Assembly to reduce the state gasoline and diesel tax rates to reduce their burden on the people and the businesses of the Old Line State.

Linked to this should be devolution of responsibility to the level of government of the people most affected.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), for example, should only be involved in roads of importance to the state as a whole.

It should cease to support projects of mostly local benefit. In Frederick County where I live the SHA is being asked to fund new local interchanges with I-70 and US15 on the north and south edges, and to upgrade collector roads in Frederick City and its vicinity.

These projects are of purely local benefit. Taxpayers from outside Frederick County should not be paying for them. They get no benefit. Similarly we in Frederick County get little benefit from many SHA projects in other counties. If the role of the SHA is reduced to projects of true statewide significance and most of the pork barrel local projects left to county and city government, then the state gas tax can be reduced substantially.

Devolution of responsibility to the level of government of major beneficiaries will not only be fairer but it is likely to be more efficient.

If the money is “from Annapolis” for local interchanges and collector roads, we have every incentive here in Frederick to load the project with extras in the planning and public consultation process — extra lanes, extra bike paths, extra landscaping, extra ‘esthetic’ features.

The present favorites are fake stone, fake brickwork on bridge beams and Romanesque arches for piers. If the county has to pay it’s more likely these frills will be dispensed with.

More so still if road service is put out to road service companies with the right to recoup costs in road use charges (tolls.)

The theme of project self-financing should, for political reasons, be applied to new projects first. A new service should be able to pay its ways with tolls in the case of roads — or fares in the case of transit. As roads are rebuilt or rail given major rehab, projects should be based on fees for use, tolls, and fares. Motor license fees and gas taxes should decline in line with the move to fee-for-use.

Users are the beneficiaries of transport services and, it needs to be said again and again, users should pay for those services directly.

Governments’ role in raising and allocating transport resources needs to be reduced — that should be the principle.

More customer-oriented service and lower taxes and fees as well as being the right thing to do, should be a winner with the electorate.

Second, the new Governor should propose several commonsense reforms:

  • a realistic maximum speed limit such as 80 mph;
  • actual speed limits to be set by the 85th or 90th percentile of observed speeds;
  • a legislated rule on red-light-cameras yellow time;
  • ending enforcement as revenue raising —  the net proceeds of speeding and red-light fines to go into a fund for blameless motor accident victims, not kept by jurisdictions as income.

There is nothing wrong with red-light and speed cameras as such. The problem has been the incentives to abuse by local governments. They’ve become a moneymaker for local jurisdictions. They’ve been compounding public anger with absurdly low speed limits making scofflaws of mostly safe drivers. Governor Hogan should say this is wrong, and that it undermines respect for the law.

Once speed limits are raised to realistic levels and only cover dangerous driving, then the most advanced camera technology should be used. State troopers and county police have more important duties than manning speed traps.

Third, in contradiction to the negative and erroneous leftist-green notion that automobile use should be suppressed, governor Hogan should stress the positive value of efficient mobility.  

Better mobility provides greater employment opportunities, better shopping choices, more specialized health and medical services, more social and family interaction, better education, sporting. and recreational opportunities.

Our travel is not frivolous. People don’t drive the Capital Beltway for the scenery. We travel because the trips provide value.

They save us time and money, and enhance our opportunities. We live in or travel to large metropolitan areas to take advantage of their vast human potential.

It has become a Left-Green commandment: “Thou shalt build no new road, because it will induce extra traffic, which is evil.”

But extra travel, extra trips are not bad, so long as the trip-makers are paying, in user-charges, the costs of the service. So long as fares and tolls are covering costs, extra travel is providing positive net value and enriches us. That is simple economics.

Governor Hogan’s administration should push back against the notion that traffic is bad. Traffic congestion is bad, to be sure, but the Left and the Greens want to reduce traffic (travel) or to make road travel so miserable people, in desperation, will take the supposedly green modes — rail, biking, or walking.

“We’re not going to tell any Marylander they need to ‘get out of their car.’” Gov Hogan should say. “We respect Marylanders’ judgement and respect their right to make their own choices of travel. We reject the notion of a system rigged by politicians to coerce people to embrace the green-left’s love affair with the train.”

Part II next: A bold initiative across the Potomac, and the Red and Purple rail projects.

Peter Samuel of British and Australian upbringing has an academic background in economics, finance, and urban planning. In the U.S. from 1980 to 1992 he wrote as a daily reporter on defense and foreign policy. Then, as a freelance writer, he specialized in critical writing on the environmental movement. A longtime friend of Robert Poole, he wrote first on roads for Poole’s Reason magazine: click here. An article on toll roads commissioned by Forbes magazine in 1996 led him to specialize in reporting on the toll-roads business, first in a low circulation monthly Toll Roads Newsletter, that he established, then in the web-based TOLLROADSnews, which he sold to new management at the end of 2013. In the U.S. since 1980 he has lived in the New York area, in N.W. Washington D.C., and since 1992 in Frederick County, Maryland. He currently lives in 19th century downtown Frederick.

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