How about letting the municipalities through which toll roads run have the money?
We propose a new way to create political support for congestion pricing on urban freeways: distribute the toll revenue to cities with the tolled freeways. With the revenue as a prize, local elected officials can become the political champions of congestion pricing. For these officials, the political benefits of the toll revenue can be far greater than the political costs of supporting congestion pricing. If congestion tolls were charged on all the freeways in Los Angeles County, for example, and the revenue were returned to the 66 cities traversed by those freeways, we estimate (using a model first developed by Elizabeth Deakin and Greig Harvey) that each city would receive almost $500 per capita per year.
That this idea is in any way controversial speaks to the bizarre way we handle the construction and financing of roads in both the United States and Canada.
Some roads are administered by cities, some by regional governments (where they exist, they often build and maintain arterials), some by states or provinces (major divided highways), and some even by federal governments (continent-spanning routes). Where there are no effective junior governments, way out in the hinterland, it can make sense for higher levels to step in, but it’s absurd that Los Angeles County doesn’t control its own freeways, or that Highway 401 through Toronto and Autoroute 40 through Montreal aren’t controlled by those mature cities’ governments.
This often creates an accountability gap, where city politicians who actually have to answer for traffic problems often can’t do much about them without largesse from higher-up governments that have little practical interest in dumping vast piles of money down to help municipal councils out. And when they do it, cities often treat the cash as found money, spending it fast and freely because they don’t have to account for it themselves.
If city councils set road tolls and also got to spend them, it’d be good news for traffic control, good news for transportation planning generally, and good news for keeping governments accountable to voters.