Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Italian Driving Lessons

By David G. Young

Courmayeur, Italy, January 22, 2002 --  

Two years after fire closed the fantastic Mt. Blanc tunnel, work crews have finished repairs to the eight mile passage that leads under Europe's highest peak to France. Far from unusual in Europe, the A5 Autostrada through the rugged Valle d'Aosta bores through solid rock nearly as much as it passes under the open sky.

While the enormous expense of building superhighways under these conditions is impressive, it is easy to find the source of the money. Drivers in Italy pay expensive tolls of about 16 cents per mile, in addition to enormously high fuel taxes that make unleaded gasoline two and a half times more expensive than in America.

With toll roads in America relatively rate, and fuel taxes comparatively insignificant, it is no surprise that America's roads are in far worse condition. In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, where the crumbling road network has changed little in 30 years, the population of Fairfax country has more than doubled over the same period.1,2 The result has been some of the worst traffic and longest commutes in the country.

Virginia's newly elected governor, Mark Warner, is from that region, and was placed in office partly as a result of his promise to allow Washington's Virginia suburbs a vote on additional taxes to be used to fund transportation projects. He prevailed handily last November in an election where his opponent made Warner's suggestion of new transportation taxes a major issue.

Does America's newfound willingness to accept higher taxes -- like Italy -- mean an end to its days of gridlock? Sadly, no. Unlike the transportation taxes in Europe, America's taxes are largely unrelated to usage. People pay the government to register their car each year, then they are allowed to drive however much they want at no extra charge. The additional taxes proposed by Warner will likely be little different. Virginia's last governor initiated a phase out of the much hated personal property tax on automobiles. The most likely source of new revenues will be supplementary sales taxes.

Anti-sprawl activists will undoubtedly oppose new roads, and seek to put the new money into rail, bus, and carpool projects. Such a diversion would be disastrous, since Washington's suburbs are far too low density for mass transit to ever make much of a difference on the regions horrible traffic. The activists' vicious claim that new roads will only lead to more sprawl is only half true. New roads only lead to more sprawl when there is little or no cost to driving on them.

Italy provides a fantastic example. Despite wonderful superhighways, no sprawling town house developments are to be found 30 miles from downtown Milan. The highways flow smoothly at rush hour, but are expensive enough to discourage daily commuting.

American drivers are often enraged at suggestions that their commutes be taxed. They have paid for their roads through taxes, they argue, and they shouldn't have to pay again to use them.

There is a hint of fairness in this argument that should not be ignored, and it is precisely why the American system is in such need of reform. There is no reason that congestion cannot be significantly reduced without charging drivers more money. The key is not the amount of the taxes, but how they are collected. Sprawl will continue and congestion will grow for however long as roads cost users the same regardless of distance traveled. Meaningful reform would occur if the exact same amount of road taxes were collected in proportion to miles driven -- either via tolls or fuel taxes.

Unfortunately, this simple solution is far too radical of a change for America's tastes. In the near term, expect more of the same -- relatively few new roads, ample new sprawl, worsening congestion, and destructively misguided attempts to solve the problem.


1. U.S. Census Bureau, State and County Quick Facts, Fairfax County, Virginia, January 2002

2. U.S. Census Bureau, Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990, March 27, 1995