The spreading use of national toll systems in Europe is a sad development. Tolls fail to provide any advantages, they are unjust, and they create needless costs. In a peaceful, united Europe, such a useless and dangerous system has no place.
Why tolls are useless
Tolls create numerous problems, but provide no advantages. Let’s start with the problems first:
1. Tolls provide no additional revenue
While supporters of tolls often act is if tolls were the only way to finance the upkeep of roads, there are plenty of other possibilities that can provide the exact same advantages. The most notable of these alternatives is a gas tax. By adding the margin of a percent in extra taxes to any fuel that is sold on gas stations, we can make just as much money as with a toll system. Since this system can provide the same revenue as tolls, toll supporters need to show how tolls provide advantages over a gas tax – and that is difficult, as we will see.
For now, let us point out that tolls do not build better roads, they only change who pays for them. Every other methods of financing can provide the same overall revenue as tolls. If tolls come without a tax reduction in some other form, they are the exact same tax increase as a gas tax, only collected differently.
2. Tolls add costs without providing any advantages
Compared to a gas tax, a toll system has the disadvantage of requiring the creation, staffing, and maintenance of thousands of toll booths, control mechanisms, and administrative structures. It is easy to see how tolls make sense for a single piece of infrastructure, for example for a bridge or a tunnel. These structures provide a clear advantage that only few people use and they allow to easily collect tolls with a cheap, simple system of one toll booth to each side.
For an entire highway system, however, a toll system is much more expensive to set up, much more expensive to maintain, and much more expensive to enforce. A gas tax can use existing infrastructure, allowing for an automated, much cheaper process. Instead of having to create a completely new infrastructure and employ thousands of people in jobs that make them unemployable for all other industries, a gas tax can use existing structures, adding a fraction of the extra costs a toll system would create.
3. A toll system is unjust
It is true that our infrastructure needs to be maintained. When roads are renewed, pot holes are fixed, and highways are expanded, the question is not whether these services can be provided for free or not, it is who pays for them. As long as a government pays these services from the overall federal budget, many people who rarely use a car pay taxes for something they do not need. This is unjust, especially since those people who drive less are also the poorest of all people.
While the supporters of tolls claim that a toll system would distribute the costs for roads more justly, this claim is wishful thinking. Every toll system offers a yearly pass that that makes sense for almost every local person. Anybody who uses the highway at least a few times a year will have to get the yearly toll pass, which means that the overwhelming majority of all people pays the same amount – regardless of how much they use the service they are paying for. Tolls do not spread the costs according to usage, they get almost everyone to pay the same.
This is unjust. Old people, out-of-work people, and people working for minimum wage drive significantly less than the well-off manager who puts in hundreds of miles to get to meetings each week. By having all of them pay the same yearly toll, we effectively redistribute from poorer to richer people – an idea that makes neither political nor economic sense. It would be more just to pay road works from the overall federal budget, which would at least mean that low-income people would contribute less taxes, thereby creating a more realistic ratio of highway-usage to highway-costs.
The most just solution to finance our streets is a gas tax. Heavy cars that hurt roads more than light cars consume more gas, which means that those drivers that cause the most costs have to pay most of the bill. Similarly, who drives less, pays less. Again, those drivers who cause the costs pay the bill.
For the overwhelming majority of the population, the added costs and the unjust distribution of costs means that tolls are more expensive to them than a slight increases in gas taxes would be.
4. Tolls fuel hate
The final argument of toll supporters is that tolls get foreigners to pay for the roads they use. This argument is a classic example for hate-filled reasoning. Politicians are trying to get votes by appealing to prejudice and self-interest, while ignoring logic and facts, most significantly that foreign drivers also need gas, which means that they, too, would pay a gas tax, thereby also contributing to road maintenance.
Tolls are a competition about who can rob more from their neighbors than their neighbors rob from them, which gets Europeans to think of each other as unfriendly muggers. The effects of such a policy undermine the decades of effort that have turned Europe from the constant war zone it was up until the middle of the 20th century into a peaceful continent where people try to cooperate – a steep price for what started as a discussion about financing road works.
To create a peaceful future, Europe must find solutions that bring countries closer together. This solution could be a European gas tax. By adding a small tax on all gas that is sold in Europe, the European Union could collect a significant amount of money that it could then redistributed according to the transit traffic every country receives. The entire system could be based on statistics and infrastructure that already exist, which would make it cheaper and more effective than tolls.
Why do we want tolls?
With the cons of tolls clearly outweighing the pros, one might ask why many people intuitively prefer tolls to a gas tax. The reason is the in-group/out-group bias. The in-group/out-group bias describes the mental phenomenon that we subconsciously overvalue everything that is associated with us and undervalue everything that is not associated with us.
Because of the in-group/out-group bias, we prefer products and stocks from companies that resemble our own name, but we are also inclined to support politics that promise advantages to people that we associate with – people from the same area, the same social group, etc. – and we are inclined to support politics that promise disadvantages to people that we do not associate with us.
This is why tolls sound more appealing than a gas tax. When we talk about a gas tax, we can intuitively picture how an increase in gas prices – however small it might be – can hurt us – the millions of people who are just like us, relying on gas to get to work and meet their loved ones, being frightened of rising gas prices. When we talk about a toll system, however, we can make ourselves believe that it will hurt them more than us, them being a blurry vision of the foreigners we have little in common with and those who drive more than us because they are richer.
The vague hope of having those who have little in common with us pay the bill distracts us from the obvious fact that a toll system will increase the overall costs so significantly that in the end everyone is worse off. We willingly hurt ourselves, only to hurt them more.
Tolls are a great example for how the belief that what is associated with us is inherently superior to anything else can trick us into dividing the world into us and them, in the end supporting any policy that we hope can hurt them more than us, even if this policy also hurts ourselves.
Large countries, for example the United States, rarely use tolls. Because of their huge area, they have less transit traffic and less reason to create an in-group/out-group bias, which allows them to realistically evaluate the advantages of tolls and to make a better decision.
To create a Europe that offers the best quality of life for all its people, we must learn to think like one big country. Tolls only have a place if they are applied to individual infrastructure projects such as bridges and tunnels. Any other project should be financed in a way that brings us closer together, not a way that drives us further apart.
- Tolls are an expensive way to feel better about ourselves and worse about our neighbors. The main reason why people support tolls is the in-group/out-group bias – they hope that tolls will hurt them more than us.
- A gas tax can provide the same advantages as a toll system, but it is significantly cheaper, simpler, and more just.
- In addition to making political and economic sense, a European gas tax would also create a solution that brings Europe closer together instead of fostering an in-group/out-group bias whose future effects will push Europe further apart.