Someone once asked, “If no one likes traffic jams, why do we still have them?” It’s actually a good question. (The answer is in game theory.) But when traffic jams are government engineered, as they are at tollbooths, the public wrath finds a deserving target.
Such was my experience last week when necessity took me from Long Island to New Jersey across the George Washington Bridge. (Only necessity could take me to New Jersey.) Crossing the GWB is a $13 hit, but only when traveling eastbound into New York, no doubt for logistical reasons related to space constraints on the New York side. But as a consequence, though traffic often moves freely westward, there is often a frightful backup on the New Jersey side at the tollbooths. On my return trip, we sat in traffic for more than an hour to pay our toll, but I have heard of delays much longer than that.
Now it’s perfectly fair for civil government to build roads and bridges, and collect fees from those who use them. God establishes government to punish evil and praise well-doing (1 Peter 2:14). But that is God’s purpose for government only insofar as we are fallen. If sin had never entered the world, we would still need government to facilitate our life together—roads and bridges and such—things that are beyond private action to manage. This is God’s purpose for government insofar as we are simply created.
Some states fund these public services on a user-pay basis, presumably in the interest of fairness. But two problems occurred to me (or gnawed at me) as I sat helplessly and vainly on I-95 with no bridge in sight.
First, while the government may arguably charge $13 for my use of this bridge, it should not also rob me of an unreasonable length of my time to do it. In severe traffic congestion—holding people up perhaps for hours—the authorities should instead suspend toll collection and speed the cars through until the problem is resolved. Otherwise, not only are they stealing people’s time beyond what the toll collection justifies, they are also robbing the wider population by burdening the flow of commerce.
But, second, this suggests that we scrap the toll system itself. The free flow of traffic on and off our bridges and interstate highways is a common good. Long backups at the booths delay workers getting to their employers, products and services to customers, working parents to their children, and beloved visitors to friends and family. So it is reasonable to distribute this cost of travel across the whole taxpaying population through the public treasury.
But that won’t happen because the reason that some states charge these user fees has nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with revenue. It’s a handy way of draining money out of Joe Traveler’s wallet into bloated government budgets.
So if nobody likes toll plazas, and we can all vote, why do we still have them?