I’ve written several papers on congestion and road pricing*. The most common type seen in the United States is HOT (high occupancy tolling) lanes. This is where drivers can pay to use uncongested lanes; drivers who carpool may use the lane for free or at a discount. Transit buses can always use the lane for free.

From the University of California Transportation Center comes new research on paying for roads with congestion versus paying for roads with sales taxes and their respective burden on poor residents.

Will research show that more people will benefit from paying sales tax to support a transit system than from paying (all kinds of) taxes to support a highway?

Their finding is that funding transportation with sales tax is less fair than funding with congestion pricing. In the latest issue of Access, Lisa Schweitzer and Brian Taylor write:

This analysis has focused on one side of the ledger: the question of who pays. But transportation systems have both costs and benefits. Indeed, the access benefits of travel are transportation’s raison d’être. So while regressivity can be viewed as a cost of road pricing (and of most other ways of paying for roads), pricing confers transportation benefits that other transportation finance mechanisms do not. Tolls and taxes can both pay to build a road. But congestion pricing can also reduce traffic delays, fuel consumption, and vehicle emissions, often to a surprising degree. Sales tax finance for transportation, by comparison, does none of these things.

I think the appropriate direction of this research should next discuss and examine the fairness of using sales taxes to provide operational and capital funding for transit. In Chicagoland, the Regional Transportation Authority is partially supported by a local sales tax. While sales tax financing for road building may not reduce traffic delays, fuel consumption, or vehicle emissions, supporting a reliable, robust and expansive transit network can do all of those things by reducing the number of single occupant vehicles on the road.

*Here’s one I’ve written: Implementing value pricing on a highway in Southern California, which I excerpted in HOT lanes and equity.