When Tolls Take a Toll

How sustaining the lifeblood of America can fall at the feet of those who are already struggling to make ends meet.



April 18, 2019

Approx 15. minute read

Crosstown traffic, all you do is slow me down
And I'm tryin' to get on the other side of town.

-Jimi Hendrix  



to popular belief, America was built for the car, not the other way around. “Everything in life is somewhere else,” E.B White remarked, “and you get there in a car.” The road work of America has been described in any number of metaphors, mostly as artery veins, blood vessels of America crisscrossing the vital organs of our country to deliver mail, produce, and Amazon Prime boxes. Some streets like New York’s and Chicago’s are carefully planned grids. Some streets, like Philadelphia’s and St. Louis’ grow organically. Other streets like Charlotte’s and Norfolk’s appear completely drunk. What all these streets have in common though, is they take money to run. And it seems no matter how much we fork over at toll booths, roads and congestion are steadily getting worse. And attempts to raise tolls to update urban infrastructure can have a devastating effect on low-income workers.

Maps of Street Layouts in Metropolitan Areas. (MapBox/ Geoff Boeing)

Tolls have long held a significance in history. In Ancient Greece, the dead were buried with a coin to pay Charon to ferry their souls across the river Styx into the afterlife. No toll? No afterlife. In Jesus’ day, toll collectors are ubiquitously associated with sinners in the synoptic Gospels. And in America, tolls have long been a begrudgingly accepted necessity of American infrastructure. Though, tolls were originally relegated to bridges, tunnels, and other large-scale public works. With the advent of two world wars, American reliance on highway systems increased in order to speed up the delivery of manufactured goods. In the 1920’s, The Federal Highway Act granted federal funding to help states pay for expanding their roads, and tolls became a standard source of highway funding to assist in this expansion.

While many states such as Arizona and Wisconsin do not have tolls, every state has a set of fees and taxes associated with owning a car that wind up supporting the state’s transportation infrastructure. However, it can be difficult to see how that money is helping.  Traffic is getting worse across the world. In 2016, congestion cost Americans $300 billion indirectly with lost time. This translates to around $1,400 dollars per driver, with an average driver spending around 9% of their time in traffic. In 2017, traffic in the United States got worse, costing Americans $305 billion indirectly, around $1445 per driver. In 2018, traffic got better in the United States, costing America only $80 billion indirectly, which cost the average driver $1,348 in lost time. Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles was consistently ranked number one for worst congestion, except in 2018 when Boston took the lead for worst congestion. In 2018, Norfolk placed 189th for most congested cities in the world, and 43rd in the United States, costing drivers around $781 annually in lost time.

Commute times in Norfolk, Virginia, showing how long it takes to drive from the city center outwards. The darker blue indicates 30 minutes, the lighter blue is 45 minutes, and the lightest blue is 60 minutes. (INIRIX)

In order to alleviate traffic jams, cities have begun to raise tolls fees and gas taxes to pay for road expansions, and mulled over congestion taxes for driving in urban areas at peak hours. New York recently became the first city to implement a congestion tax on cars driving below 60th street in Manhattan. But does the attempt to get traffic moving again place a disproportionate burden on low-income families and commuters?

On the face of it, it might seem like the answer is clearly yes. Something that costs more for someone who doesn’t earn much is bad. But the actual answer is far more slippery. Take HOT lanes as an example. High Occupancy/ Toll lanes (not to be confused with High Occupancy Vehicle lanes) are lanes built in addition to public highway lanes that allow drivers with multiple people in the car to use an express lane for free. HOT lanes differ from HOV lanes in that if you are a solo driver, you can pay a toll to use the HOT lane. Typically, HOV lanes require you have multiple people in your car, toll or no toll. There hasn’t been much research done on HOT lanes’ effects on low-income drivers, but the research that is out there is lukewarm. When San Diego opened their HOT lane over a decade ago, the San Diego Association of Governments found the percentage of support for HOT lanes from high-income earners and low-income earners was about equal. In fact, San Diego found a marginally greater percentage of low-income HOT supporters compared to high-income supporters. Another longitudinal study done on Minnesota’s HOT lanes found 71 percent of high-income resident supported HOT lanes, with 64 percent of low-income residents not far behind. A 2013 study conducted by construction firm HNTB (who builds toll roads) found 75 percent of drivers with incomes under $50,000 support HOT lanes and 76% of those with incomes above $50,000 support HOT lanes. Though, this data should be taken with a grain of salt as HNTB builds toll roads, including certain tunnels in Virginia we will come too soon.

The Eastbound I-66 Corridor in Washington D.C. charged tolls as high as $46 during the morning rush hour. The price fluctuates based on traffic volume. (Washington Post photo/Washington Post)

The Eastbound I-66 Corridor in Washington D.C. charged tolls as high as $46 during the morning rush hour. The price fluctuates based on traffic volume. (Washington Post photo/Washington Post)

Now, adding an additional HOV lane to a free highway is not the same as raising general toll prices. Raising a toll on a road that used to be ‘free’ smacks of injustice, but is this also the case? Let’s take Washington D.C. as an example. Back in 2017, Washington’s I-66 Express Lane made headlines for charging a $40 toll to go 10 miles during peak hours. Some have pointed to this stretch of road between the suburbs and downtown with a sense of vindication against wealthy suburbanites. Rich people paying more for a good? It’s a dream come true. And ceteris paribus, it may by only the wealthy who commute daily into city centers for work that are forced to pay this toll. But, rising tolls don’t occur in a vacuum. A toll price must be analyzed within the more complex relationship of urban movements, in this case gentrification.

A ‘classic’ set up goes something like this: Affluent folks living in the suburbs outside urban areas drive to work in the morning and home in the evening. These affluent workers pay a toll on the road they use during rush hours. The toll may be $11, it may be $40, but if you are wealthy enough to own a suburban home, you might not feel the price squeeze as much. Low-income workers live in poorer urban centers and use public transportation to get to work, or only commute short distances so they remain unaffected by tolls. So what happens when affluent suburbanites start moving from the outskirts of cities into downtown?  Prices of homes in urban areas start going up, the cost of living in urban centers begins to rise, and eventually low-income workers are forced to move farther and farther away from the city centers where they are employed. This is what’s known as gentrification. Unfortunately, the latter is not a hypothetical. Ballooning urban real estate prices across America have generated a sizeable increase in what are known as “super commuters.” Super commuters are workers who travel more than 90 miles each way to get to work. Though still relatively small in the U.S., the Pew Foundation found that from 2010 to 2015 there was a 23% increase in the number of super commuters in the United States. Unsurprisingly, Pew found a strong correlation between rising urban costs of living and the percentage of low-income workers that are super commuters. Low income workers in states like California, Massachusetts and New York, where 9 percent of the population are super commuters, bear the brunt of gentrification and longer commutes.

As more low-income workers are priced-out of urban centers, those workers are forced to commute, thus contributing to congestion and traffic. And at the same time, those same low-income workers are forced to pay higher tolls to upgrade America’s infrastructure to fix congestion and traffic. What this means is that low-income workers are forced to pay for their own displacement. Both of these events are occurring in Norfolk, Virginia right now, where tolls are holding the poor for ransom.

$18,000 In Tolls

Hampton Roads is in need of a new underwater tunnel to connect Norfolk and Portsmouth, along with a freeway extension, and a facelift for existing tunnels. In order to pay for this renovation, Virginia partnered with the Elizabeth River Company (ERC) to toll the tunnels connecting Norfolk and Portsmouth. The results have been disastrous for impoverished families. Take the case of Takeisha Reynolds, a Portsmouth resident who commutes daily to work in downtown Norfolk. Reynolds takes an ERC-operated tunnel from Portsmouth to downtown Norfolk each day for work. When ERC, a private company, began tolling their underwater tunnels in 2014, their billing system hit low-income workers hard. Without an E-ZPass to pay electronically, the pay-by-plate billing system includes the toll, plus a $3.30 processing fee, and the threat of a $5 late fee. “It was already hard for me without tolls to pay for regular bills,” Reynolds said, “then you put this on me and tell me I have to pay this or I can’t go to work.” E-ZPass can be tricky to maintain for low-wage commuters, and it did not take long for the new toll fees to add up for Reynolds. With 872 trips to and from work, she now owes $15,000 in unpaid tolls, for a job that paid $11,000 a year. And Reynolds is not alone. Tamaia Camp is in for $18,396 for 981 trips across the Elizabeth River. At her previous job, a cafeteria worker at an elementary school, she was making around $1,000 a month. That was before Elizabeth River Crossing seized her car using what then-ERC CEO called “improving results,” from an internal collections team. Elizabeth River Crossing also put a registration-hold on Tawanna Harris, after she owed $13,000 in tolls and fees to ERC. Without a car, Harris, who commuted from Norfolk to Portsmouth had to leave her job. “I could never understand why they put these tolls in the poorest city in Hampton Roads,” Harris said.

Elizabeth River Crossing did initiate a program to alleviate toll burdens for those making less than $30,000 a year. Portsmouth and Norfolk residents could sign up to receive a dollar off each trip, $2.09 peak/ $1.73 off-peak. Though toll prices are set to rise annually 3.5 percent. And with Norfolk and Portsmouth being some of the poorest cities in Virginia, the discount will do little to alleviate the financial burden these tolls place on low-wage earners already struggling to make ends meet.

Elizabeth River dividing Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. (U.S. Navy/ Public Domain)

Elizabeth River dividing Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia. (U.S. Navy/ Public Domain)

Now take what’s happening with Norfolk’s increase in tolls in order to pay for congestion relief, and pair this with Norfolk’s plan to demolish public housing in downtown Norfolk. You get a sort of perfect storm for tolls. Due to a lack of available housing in Norfolk, many public housing and Section 8 residents that currently live and work in downtown Norfolk will be moved to Portsmouth beginning this Summer. With a dearth of public transportation options, many new Portsmouth residents will have to commute by car to Norfolk for work. This means a majority of people whose income already averages below $10,000 will be hit with a massive financial burden from tolls simply for going to work.

It’s easy to look at $40 toll like the one in D.C. and see that low-income workers aren’t able to afford that. But what appears as a meager $2.00 toll can have a profound financial impact on America’s working poor when other urban projects like gentrification are taken into account. And in Norfolk, these small tolls are leaving people with the choice between food, medicine, and bills. “When you’re working a low-end job, you have to borrow to pay rent,” said Harris, “it’s hard to have extra change when those bills come.” 

            So what options remain on the table? Congestion is a problem. Tolling to widen roads can have a negative impact on impoverished workers. And with more affluent folks flocking to urban areas, there is a growing trend of low-income super commuters who will be at the mercy of the toll booth. Well, part of a solution can look like what New York City is doing. New York city has introduced a congestion tax for vehicles driving below 60th street in Manhattan. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has stated that congestion tax funds “would be put in a lockbox for MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] capital projects.” The MTA is New York’s public transit system. New York’s investment in their dilapidated public transportation will be a boon to low-income workers who commute to, from, and around Manhattan by public transportation.

Now, it is possible that congestion pricing could become a financial burden to low-income workers who are forced to commute to inner cities for work after already being displaced by rising home prices. That is why dedicating the funds to public transportation that link long distance commuters to work, not just building new highways, can offer a benefit to low-income commuters.

Further, a divestment of private equity from operating toll roads would eliminate models of predatory pricing like the kinds seen in Norfolk, Virginia. In Virginia’s partnership with Elizabeth River Crossing, ERC is entitled to 13.5% of annual profits over 58 years. That’s a generation’s worth of profits made on the necessity of an African American woman’s commute to make $1,000 a month. It is nothing short of highway robbery. Private equity’s profit motive serves as a driving force to generate profits to build new highways, which will in turn be further tolled to generate more profits for more highways. Without a dedicated “lockbox” for funding public transportation, for the next 53 years, Norfolk commuters, their jobs, their cars, and their livelihood will be held for ransom on a 6 mile stretch of concrete. Like ancient Roman tax collectors, some toll operators line their pockets from the exploitation of poor workers with the State’s blessing. We do well to remember how the Scriptures look upon tax collectors, and hold accountable the groups that exploit the most vulnerable among our communities.

            Though with congestion and gentrification increasing at a rapid pace around the world, it’s easy to see higher tolls and taxes on the horizon. And there’s no end in sight. I wouldn’t be surprised if even Charon himself is eyeing a toll hike. At this rate, it won’t be long until the poor can’t even afford to die anymore.

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