For Whom the Road Rolls (Me or Thee?)

Original post date: September 05, 2012
Article by: Sam Staley

A catchy little tune is making its way around the Internet, lambasting the tolls levied by the Dulles Greenway.   The Greenway is a privately developed, owned, and financed extension of the Dulles Tollroad (which is publicly owned and operated). The song, “Highway Robbery,” laments the toll rates drives have to pay to use the facility:

“They built a road in the countryside
Rolling green hills for miles and miles
The farms and the fields no factory
But don’t you dare think you can drive for free
Because it’s highway robbery”

But, a little cognitive dissonance is embedded in these populist lyrics, since the songwriters also observe:

“Fourteen miles and it’s nice and smooth
From Leesburg to Dulles you can really move
Drive everyday but you cry at night
Cause of the price of the toll is out of sight”

So, the road is a good facility—“nice and smooth” and “you can really move”—but you “cry at night” because the “toll is out of sight.” In essence, the songwriters are complaining because they aren’t getting something for nothing. (Later on, they argue for eliminating the tolls or rolling them back significantly.)

The Dulles airport corridor is a highly congested part of Northern Virginia, where traffic on “free” roads (really taxpayer funded) slows to a crawl, even during shoulder and sometimes off peak periods. The tolls on the Greenway are essential to not only generate the revenues necessary to fund the facility but also to prioritize access based on willingness to pay.

But another perhaps even more important issue beyond pure financial management and economics is implicit in the song’s lyrics: Users of the Dulles Greenway should be subsidized by non users. Many roads like the Dulles Greenway serve very specific transportation needs for targeted travelers. Perhaps the more equitable solution is, in fact, to have the users finance these roads rather than redistribute funds through taxes from those that don’t benefit.

In the real world, nothing is free, not even roads. We probably need more user fees, not fewer, if we want to sustainably support our transportation network for efficiency and equity reasons.

About DeVoe Moore Center

The DeVoe L. Moore Center is conducts economic research and policy analysis focused on state and local policy issues and is located in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. As an educational institution the DMC provides professional research experience to undergraduate and master’s students through an extensive program of internships and independent study, preparing them for a future in public policy, economic development, public sector accountability and entrepreneurship.
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