Two researchers, University of Southern California Assistant Professor Lisa Schweitzer and University of California at Los Angeles Professor Brian Taylor, recently studied the effects of toll roads on low-income residents, focusing on Orange County, Calif.'s State Route 91, a 10-mile road with four high-occupancy toll lanes. They set out to determine whether pay-as-you-go tolls or local option sales taxes are the more fair funding method for roads, and they determined that tolls are more equitable. (An online version of the report is available at http://www.springerlink.com) American City & County talked with Schweitzer about the study.

Q: What prompted your research?

A: We saw a dominant discussion around congesting pricing, [particularly in] California. It's this cycle of, ‘We could build extra capacity, [but] that would ruin the environment. We could price the facilities, but that would hurt the poor. [So], we won't do anything.’ It's this endless cycle of just not doing anything. At the same time, people are pursuing all sorts of mechanisms to supplement the gas tax, like sales taxes, which also have their distributional [and social equity] consequences. I wanted to jolt us out of that discussion. Some [say] that congestion pricing doesn't hurt the poor. We conclude that it's very costly for drivers, but other things are costly for everyone.

Q: Why are tolls more fair than sales taxes for funding roads?

A: With a toll, an individual [low-income] driver can choose not to drive in toll lanes and not to pay for the freeway. But, with things like sales tax, we take money out of the lower income groups and redistribute it into higher groups. To me, that's a legitimate point of discussion.

If you have a low income, it means that any sort of expense is a bigger hit for you than it is for [those] that [have] higher incomes. It's an institutional and historical problem. Freeway travel during peak periods, to me, is much more like cable TV. Nobody guarantees you access to the premium channels. Travel during the exact time periods that you want during the day with free-flowing conditions is a premium service. It's not the same as saying [that] we're going to charge you from the minute you come out of your driveway and drive all over the surface streets. We're just saying these freeways are diminishing; they're capacity-constrained. As a result, we have to find a way to rationally use [them] because we're not going to build anymore, at least not in California.

Q: How might your findings differ in other communities?

A: We looked at one facility in Orange County, which is one of the richest jurisdictions in the country. If we had looked at the Harbor Freeway, which serves downtown and South Central [Los Angeles], our results would have been a lot different. Metropolitan areas are segregated by race and by class and so, as a result, any given link in the network is going to have different drivers on there.

Q: How can local government leaders in other parts of the country benefit from your study results?

A: I want them to understand the framework that we used for analysis more so than I want them to take away this idea somehow that congestion pricing doesn't hurt the poor. I want them to understand that the status quo has equity consequences: sitting in traffic. Some of us are much more able to buy things that allow us to use our time while we're sitting in traffic. I want localities to think about congestion pricing and value pricing. There [are] a lot of different ways to implement it.