OTT once again proved to be fertile ground for discussion - this time, discussion touched on various energy and environmental issues - particularly those surrounding driving.
Since I live and work in semi-rural area of South Jersey and don't personally encounter much in the way of traffic in my daily commute, but our favorite anonymous poster made a valid point - drivers in many metro areas experience major traffic delays to and from their jobs on a daily basis.
While we both agreed that this was an issue, we had some differences on the best way to address the problem - although we both agreed that tolls would be an effective way to address high traffic areas.
Historically, gas taxes have been used for the purposes of road maintenance, traffic reduction and subsidization of alternative means of transportation. There are a few problems with this approach:
1) Gas taxes target the wrong resource - traffic jams are the result of excess demand (and shortage of supply) of road space - not gasoline.
2) Gas taxes treat all driving the same - sitting in a traffic jam and taking a scenic trip on skyline drive have vastly different effects on the traffic levels on the Capital Beltway from 6-9AM, but place the same costs on the driver
3) As vehicles become more efficient, gas taxes will have less impact on traffic snarls- Hybrid electrics already use very little (if any) gasoline when sitting in traffic. In fact, hybrids see their biggest gains in fuel economy over gas only cars in stop & go driving. If our theoretical drivers above had hybrids, the driver using the more available of the two routes (scenic driver) is paying a greater share then the driver using the heavily demanded road. If (or when) plugin vehicles begin to take any significant share of the car market, the effect of gas taxes on traffic will be even less.
As mentioned earlier, tolls would be the most effective way to address high volume traffic - especially if the prices varied based on time of day. Tolls have the benefit of placing a price on the resource being used - and with the increased popularity of EZ-Pass and other automated methods of payment, the bottleneck effect of tolls is lessened. The other advantage for tolls over gas taxes is that it places a price on a resource that the government owns rather than charging individuals for an otherwise private transaction.
If the prices were set correctly, many drivers would choose to travel at different times of day, some who would otherwise drive on their own would carpool, and many would choose public transportation (removing the need to subsidize fares to keep mass transit solvent).
Some of the proceeds from tolls would continue to be used for road maintenance and other transportation infrastructure, beyond that, I would propose using the rest to reduce gasoline taxes. While the total elimination of gas taxes is likely not feasible (after all, placing tolls on the vast majority of county & municipal roads is just not workable), if roads (and parking spaces) were priced with profit in mind, we would gain the dual benefit of efficient management of the resource that is the road, and a tax reduction to boot!!