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Summary As traditional sources of funding for the nation’s surface transporta- tion system fail to keep pace with demand, proposals for new sources have proliferated. New funding strategies, such as pricing the use of new and existing roads, and new institutional arrangements, such as public–private partnerships, have emerged over the past few years. As with all transportation policies, these strategies raise questions about equity. Will certain groups bear a disproportionate share of the bur- den of paying for transportation services? Will members of some groups be adversely affected by a particular finance strategy? Will rev- enues collected in one geographic area be spent elsewhere? Road pric- ing in particular has often raised equity concerns because of the fear that low-income drivers may be priced off the road, but there are other equity concerns as well. To address these concerns, the Transportation Research Board convened an expert committee to provide guidance to public officials about assessing the equity of evolving transportation finance mechanisms. The committee was charged with • Identifying the various dimensions of equity important for public policy debates about evolving ﬁnance mechanisms, • Suggesting speciﬁc issues for policy makers to consider when evolving mechanisms are proposed, and • Making recommendations for research. The committee recommends actions to be taken by public policy makers and their staff and by researchers and analysts and identiﬁes sources of funding for these recommended actions. The most important actions are discussed under the four headings that follow. 1
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2 Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms EXAMINE DETAILS OF EVOLVING AND EXISTING FINANCE POLICIES TO ASSESS THEIR EQUITY The most important lesson from the committee’s work is that broad gen- eralizations about the fairness of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, cor- don tolls,1 and other evolving mechanisms oversimplify the reality and are misleading. Equity can be assessed in many ways (e.g., in terms of income or geography and across generations). Furthermore, the speciﬁcs of policy instrument design, revenue usage, and service delivery can change equity outcomes as judged by any equity criteria. Thus, the fair- ness of a given type of ﬁnance mechanism depends on how it is struc- tured, what transportation alternatives are offered to users, and which aspects of equity are deemed most important. It is impossible to draw reliable conclusions about the equity of a particular type of ﬁnance mechanism without delving into the details. Existing ﬁnance mechanisms have not prompted equity debates to the same extent as road pricing proposals. This observation is explained in part by the general bias in favor of the status quo and in part by the lack of explicit comparisons of the equity implications of existing and evolv- ing mechanisms. Existing mechanisms are not, however, inherently equi- table. General sales taxes, for example, though often politically expedient, usually result in poorer households paying a larger share of their income than wealthier households. These taxes also disconnect those who bene- ﬁt from the transportation system from those who pay for it, and there- fore are less equitable than the gas tax or road pricing according to several equity criteria, including the well-established user pay principle. ASK A BROAD RANGE OF QUESTIONS ABOUT EQUITY IMPACTS Public policy makers should pay attention to the deﬁning characteristics of all proposals, particularly the ways in which revenues are collected and used, because the fairness of many transportation ﬁnance mechanisms is so dependent on application-speciﬁc details. Moreover, the equity 1 HOT lanes are tolled lanes operating alongside existing highway lanes that provide users with a faster and more predictable travel option in return for payment of a toll. Cordon toll policies require users to pay a toll to enter or drive within a congested urban area during times of heavy trafﬁc.
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Summary 3 implications of transportation ﬁnance mechanisms are not always as they seem initially. To move beyond superﬁcial analysis, policy makers should insist on well-designed studies of transportation ﬁnance that yield reliable information about the likely distribution of burdens and beneﬁts and facilitate comparison of a given ﬁnance strategy with alter- natives. In conducting such studies, researchers and analysts need to consider not only who pays and who uses the transportation system, but also likely short- and long-term behavioral changes and their conse- quences. These effects include shifting tax or fee burdens to others and subsequent changes in mobility and land use. Analyzing these outcomes can guide reﬁnements of ﬁnance strategies to offset adverse impacts. Empirical evidence about the impacts of road pricing and other evolving ﬁnance mechanisms continues to accrue but is necessarily lim- ited by the number of cases available for study. Additional studies that gather data both before and after new ﬁnance mechanisms are imple- mented will be particularly important for informing future analyses of equity and developing robust information to assist public ofﬁcials faced with decisions about transportation ﬁnance approaches. ENGAGE THE PUBLIC IN DECISION MAKING Public policy makers who wish to promote equity should engage their con- stituents and other stakeholders early and often when considering the use of new or unfamiliar transportation ﬁnance mechanisms. As part of this process, they should develop outreach programs and educational activities to help diverse audiences understand and participate in discussion of pro- posed projects and programs, associated ﬁnance mechanisms, and equity implications. Scientiﬁcally rigorous public opinion research can help pol- icy makers gauge the public’s understanding of and responses to a new ﬁnance proposal as well as their reactions to a new mechanism following its implementation, when the beneﬁts and costs are often better understood. DEVELOP A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF TRAVEL BEHAVIOR AND ITS CONSEQUENCES New transportation ﬁnance policies motivate people to change their travel behavior, often to avoid paying a new tax or fee or to take advan- tage of new travel options. For example, commuters wishing to avoid
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4 Equity of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms increased peak-hour transit fares may join carpools or modify their work schedules to travel earlier or later, and drivers in a hurry may choose to use a new HOT lane (and pay the fee) to get to work or child care faster. Determining who wins and who loses as the result of behavioral changes and their consequences is complicated, and the answers are rarely clear cut. Some research has been conducted on these questions, but more is needed to understand better the equity effects of new ﬁnance mecha- nisms. Researchers need to gather ﬁne-grained data on personal travel and freight movements and to develop models that can simulate relevant travel behaviors. Researchers and analysts then need to use these tools to explore a wide range of questions about how people modify their use of the transportation system in response to changes in prices and services and the consequences of these responses—always bearing in mind the uncertainties inherent in travel forecasting models. In making informed decisions about what constitutes an equitable transportation ﬁnance policy, policy makers need to recognize that there are multiple dimensions of equity, some of which may be contradictory. Under these circumstances, policy makers need to consider a variety of factors in making choices about what is equitable in a given situation. Good data and analytical tools, knowledge gained through research, care- fully crafted situation-speciﬁc analyses, and meaningful interactions with all stakeholders can help policy makers compare the equity of alternative mechanisms and craft policies that enhance equity.