Libertarians have a maddening way of confronting problems with simple supply-and-demand arguments that are hard to refute. So it was last week when Randal O'Toole came by the office to discuss Utah's highway needs.

O'Toole is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think-tank in Washington. But he is not an East Coast elitist. His thin bow tie, casual shirt and gray beard make him look every bit the small-town Oregon resident he is. He understands western U.S. cities and their challenges, although he is particularly familiar with Portland, Ore., a city he spares no punches ridiculing for policies he says have increased congestion, raised taxes and forced families to move across the river to Vancouver, Wash.

Occasional visitors to the place, such as myself, find it delightful. Downtown is only a few dollars and a short light-rail ride from the airport. O'Toole says, "What you need to do is see the city through the eyes of residents." That view, he insists, looks like a mess.

Regardless, he wasn't here to discuss Portland. He was here to talk about highways. To Utahns, he makes the argument that gas taxes no longer work.

As cars become more fuel-efficient, gas-tax revenues decline in proportion to the amount of driving people do. Over time, inflation eats away at how much the tax actually collects. In addition, any attempts to raise it are met with instant and passionate opposition from a variety of sources.

In the meantime, the amount of miles driven on the state's roads actually is increasing at a rate much higher than the already impressive growth rate. And so the state needs to find alternatives that are fair and effective. O'Toole believes tolls, or, more specifically, so-called congestion pricing, is the answer.

With congestion pricing, drivers would pay different rates to use highways depending on the amount of traffic at the time. Using simple computers and cheap on-board transponders in automobiles, the state could vary the toll as conditions warrant.

It's a solution based on a simple economic argument. Traffic congestion already comes at a cost. When you're idling or inching along the freeway, it's costing you in time and gasoline. But most people don't think of the problem in these terms. They would, however, if they had to pay a premium to drive during peak hours.

Some research backs this up. Earlier this year, the Puget Sound Regional Council of Washington State rigged the cars of 275 volunteers with tolling meters. According to Penton Business Media, each participant was given a tolling allowance for the use of freeways in the Seattle area. If they ended the 18-month study period with no change in driving habits, they would be considered to have spent the allowance. If they reduced the amount they drove, they would pocket the difference.

The result was a 12 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled each week, a 7 percent reduction in trips and an 8 percent reduction in minutes spent in the car.

Here's where O'Toole's arguments meet the greatest resistance: He claims at least two-thirds of drivers during rush hour don't have to be on the road. When the real cost of driving during those times is exposed, he said, those drivers will decide to go at a different time. Spread traffic out during the day and pretty soon you won't need as many new highways.

His suggestion is to start small, by turning existing toll lanes — the car-pool lanes people already can pay extra to drive on alone — into congestion-pricing lanes.

O'Toole's arguments are not new. Some Utah lawmakers already are on the congestion-pricing bandwagon. But there are plenty of loud opponents.

I don't agree with all O'Toole says. It's hard to believe so many people drive during rush hour when they don't need to. He's also too quick to dismiss arguments that congestion pricing favors wealthy drivers who can afford to drive whenever they want.

But his arguments for variable tolls as a new and effective way to fund highway needs put the burden on his detractors to come up with something better.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]