The End of the Road: The Idea That Took A Toll On How We Travel

A woman gas attendant puts water into a customers automobile at the gas station, ca. 1925. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Posted every Monday, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Article 19, California State Constitution
Year: Early 1920s
Jurisdiction: State
Nominated by: Martin Wachs


Two weeks ago, this column featured UCLA professor and transportation policy expert Brian D. Taylor nominating the Collier-Burns Act of 1947 as a Law That Shaped L.A.

In, "My Way or The Highway: Why Mega-Roads Rule The City," Taylor explained how that California state law -- and a federal cousin that followed nine years later -- led to a Godfather-like offer that Los Angeles politicians decided that they couldn't refuse.

That offer: Scrap the local logic of city-specific, public transit-integrated, road-building plans and instead just pave everywhere, including Downtown L.A., with the same goliath-style interstates as in less populated rural areas.

This week, like a commuter, we return again to the subject of how and why L.A. became such a mecca for motorists.

Martin Wachs is the senior principal researcher at RAND and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He's also directed that policy institution's Transportation, Space, and Technology Program as well as chaired UCLA's Department of Urban Planning.

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 Early evening view of Douglas gas station and its sign advertising their gas prices | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Early evening view of Douglas gas station and its sign advertising their gas prices | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Wachs nominates Article 19 of the California state constitution as a Law That Shaped L.A. Since 19's passage in the early 1920s, the Golden State has taken a dedicated "cents per gallon" amount from purchases of gasoline and used that money for, as the text of the Article reads, "The research, planning, construction, improvement, maintenance, and operation of public streets and highways...."

(A later amendment allowed in theory for public transit improvement, but in practice, Wachs says, that didn't much occur.)

Article 19 put a stop to the state's previous policy of using money from the general funds for roadway-making. The Article instead placed the burden of paying for roads on the same people who used them. This turned into a feedback loop. The more people who started driving cars with gas-powered engines, the more gallons of gas were sold. The more gallons sold, the more "cents per gallon" dollars collected. The more money collected, the more and better roads. The more and better roads, the more drivers felt comfortable ditching Red Cars for private cars.

By 1920 or so, Wachs says that California was spending about half of the state's revenue building new roads. "Automobiles were becoming much more popular very quickly," he says. "The populous was calling for connections between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Francisco and Sacrament and the states was building new highways -- not freeways yet, but major highways."

Despite the state spending fifty percent of its funds on road-building, Wachs says that traffic congestion was -- yup -- getting worse. (Sound familiar? Here's a link to one of many stories or studies that posit that we can't build our way out of single-driver-trip-congestion.)

So, Wachs says, Article 19, like the 1918 Oregon law that preceded it, created a "motor fuel tax." That nomenclature is misleading, Wachs points out, because the motor fuel tax is not a "tax" in the way that word is usually defined. Instead it's really a toll -- the pay-for-use equivalent of ponying up coins or FastTrak credit while driving through a physical or digital booth.

Gas prices ca. 1941 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public LIbrary
Gas prices ca. 1941 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public LIbrary

Whether labeled tax or toll -- and that makes a huge political difference nowadays -- back when Article 19 was first adopted, Wachs says that Californians were pleased with it. That's no matter whether or not they were drivers.

"At the time, the users were a small proportion of the total population and it was thought fair that they should pay," Wachs says. "Not only that, but the users wanted the roads so badly they said they would like to pay and that the value to them of having the roads was far greater than the cost of a few pennies of tax on each gallon."

By 1932, Wachs says that all of the then-forty-eight states in the Union passed motor fuel tolls. That same year, the federal government did the same. In later years, as Wachs and this column's Northeastern correspondent Zak Patten point out, freeways required a 90%-100% contribution of federal-state dollars. All of that money, federal and state, came from the motor fuel funds.

It took many decades to accumulate large quantities of these funds. "But [Article 19 and its siblings] produced the revenues that we've used to build and maintain the national highway system," Wachs says. "Which is hundreds of thousands of miles and, in a way, the envy of the world."

Envy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. "On one hand, if you travel in Europe and Asia you find far less developed highway systems," Wachs says. "That's a tribute to the power of this finance mechanism in the United States."

"On the other hand," Wachs says, "You could say that in England, because they had so much less money to spend on highways, they spent general revenues on public transit and they built a less-highway dominated transportation system."

Adds Wachs: "And these days, with greenhouse gas concerns and environmental concerns we would like to encourage people to use transit more."

Even more significant to the contemporary conversation about transportation and ecological issues is the irony of the very law that fed our all-you-can-eat asphalt buffet and its associated menu of environmental ills being relatively starved today for funds due to, yup, cleaner-running cars and trucks.

Man pumps gas into his sports convertible at the Signal service station ca. 1960 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Man pumps gas into his sports convertible at the Signal service station ca. 1960 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

"Cars have become more fuel efficient and they use less gasoline for each mile they drive," Wachs says, and indeed, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are mandated to rise to 54.5 miles per gallon. "We even have on the horizon the prospect that a substantial portion of the fleet will be electric cars or hydrogen-powered cars that won't use gasoline or diesel fuel at all. But they will use the roads; and they will produce no revenue towards the use of the roads."

Two Wachs quotes sum up the situation: "So the roads are deteriorating because of an absence of revenue." And: "The transportation program in the sate, and nationally [through the Highway Trust Fund] is becoming bankrupt very quickly."

Good luck changing that. The federal cents per gallon toll hasn't risen in two decades. As for new, technology-driven ideas, RAND prepared this study about using a vehicles' GPS data to charge for miles driven. This is similar to the pilot programs of some insurance companies. But, to many if not most people, this is perceived as such an invasion of privacy that it's as much a non-starter as a Yugo in a cold-weather junkyard.

Another potential alternative to the motor fuel tax that Wachs is aware of involves taxing gasoline less when the price per gallon rises; and taxing more when the price falls.

In such a scenario, then, a gas price for an upcoming year could be set, on say, January 1st. If the fixed price is $1 or $3 or $5 per gallon, then businesses and individuals could better estimate in advance the year's fuel costs. Whenever the pre-tax price sinks below $1 or $3 or $5, the difference would go to the government for infrastructure repair. Whenever it rises above that fixed price -- no taxes.

Even if the specifics and potential loopholes and manipulations of such a plan could be easily worked out to the greater public's benefit -- is there any chance such an idea could even be debated in capitol buildings? No, Wachs says. "It's politically suicidal to propose."

So, California -- and the nation -- will likely continue to putter and sputter along using a law that we call a tax that is really a toll. A law that, along with Collier-Burns and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, led to "the largest public works program in world history," as Wachs says.

And a law that so promoted roads over rails and feet and other non-automotive transportation methods that our lanes are decaying under the heavy weight of not just our vehicles, but the burden of our past decisions and present policy paralysis.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: Twitter @LosJeremy, via emailing arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page.



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