Virginia Fines: Right or Wrong?

Turtlesnail_2There has been tremendous coverage in the last month regarding Virginia's new fines for reckless driving and other lawbreaking on the roads.
(A list of the exact fines can be found in this Washington Post article)
(More: ABC News story, Marc Fisher column, list of many articles)

Recent articles have all covered the outcry and rage--seemingly unanimous, or at least widespread--over the outrageousness of these fines. What is much harder to measure, but I believe exists to a great degree, is the support from hundreds of thousands of safe drivers in Virginia. Let the record state that I support strong fines for reckless driving and other unsafe behavior. I am not the slightest bit outraged, because I have absolutely no concern that I will ever be subject to one of these fines, and if they serve to keep people focused on their driving behavior, then good.

I agree that the legislature should look at making improvements to the law. It ought to include out-of-state drivers, too. Pregnant_womenIt doesn't make much sense that a speeding VA driver is somehow more dangerous than a speeding Maryland driver who happens to be in Virginia.

Judges should be given a little leeway to make decisions about those (sarcasm alert!) hundreds of pregnant women rushing to hospitals.

Finland has a progressive system in which fines are pegged to income. There's a certain elegance to this idea, essentially penalizing people with more equal amounts of pain ($300,000/year lawyer fined $3,000; $42,000/year teacher fined $420). Back in 2004, Dr. Gridlock came out opposed to this idea, and despite its appeal to fairness, I think it would be politically impossible in the US.

Is this how we should fund our transportation improvements? Probably not, although having the fines go to providing people with safer alternatives to driving is certainly a good place to put the fine dollars. 0015060326114252_sm
There's the odd inverse relationship between success (more safe driving) and funding. If hugely successful at deterring bad driving, the amount of money collected would plummet, and we'd have to go back and figure out something else--something more dependable and regular. As I mentioned in my post the other day, a more direct relationship between use of the system and funding would be better, i.e., tolls and congestion charges that charge people for using the roads.

Mary Peters: The Folly of Higher Gas Prices

Post1header Today's (Saturday, August 25) Washington Post included an op-ed by US Dept. of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters (who was just mentioned for other reasons on this blog the other day). CollapseHer key point is that raising gas taxes to improve transportation infrastructure (which has been raised in the public's consciousness since the bridge collapse in Minnesota) is the wrong strategy. She cites a couple of reasons:

1) Because the money is deposited into a federal trust fund, its allocation becomes politicized, and Congress is apt to skew the priorities for its use. I would tend to agree with this point.

2) It does little or nothing to reduce traffic congestion, because it does not dissuade people from driving during congested times or on congested roadways. I partially agree. Large gas taxes would push people towards smaller cars and also get them to think about using them less, but it wouldn't necessarily affect congestion. Small increases in the gas tax would probably make little difference.

Red_gas_pump I am in favor of raising gas prices, but for different reasons and in a different way. Burning gasoline creates environmental damage. Gas taxes could be used more appropriately to offset the damage caused by their use by being used for environmental protection. A better strategy in my mind is that gas taxes could replace wage taxes. The taxes collected would be used to reduce wage taxes. This works well for progressivity of tax policy, because rich tend to buy more gas and poor pay more in wage taxes.

Her key point is that we currently provide virtually all of our roadways for free. Any free good will tend to be overutilized. The infrastructure itself should be priced rather than the gas. I completely agree with this point. Hap If people and businesses were charged for the use of the roads--more during congested times; possibly more for larger, more damaging vehicles--then they would start to make decisions based on their use. That's the idea behind congestion pricing (another recent blog): charge people for their use. If we tolled every road then a lot more people would choose to take the train or bus or ride their bike or otherwise think a bit harder before hopping in their car and driving.

Our New Hybrid: Update #2

Toyotacamryhybrid2007_2 As I mentioned in my June post, Arlington County passed a tax break for residents who own hybrid vehicles. I am pleased to report that we have received our personal property tax bill for this year and--just as hoped for--our bill was reduced by $750 because of the break. What would have been a $898 tax bill is only $148.

I must admit that this is an unexpected windfall. At the time we bought the car we were not aware that the county was considering this idea. We are, of course, happy about it.

EPA has now updated their website to include the new MPG ratings, which are more representative of real-world driving. It showsWww_fueleconomy_gov_ltblue_bgrd our Camry as 34 MPG combined, which is much closer to our experience, instead of the official 39.

Here are the revised fuel efficiency ratings for the cars that qualify for the tax break.

And here are some of the highest mileage 2007 model year cars for comparison (2008 data are not all available yet). Hybrids that qualify are bolded.