If you were going to charge people to uses roads and highways, enough to fund the maintenance and ongoing development of the system, on what criteria would they pay? Would people drive less? You might point out, people already pay for the roads and infrastructure through taxes so why would paying in another form be any different? Paying for the use of public roads on a day to day, or month to month, basis would surely prove to be a much different framework and lead to alternative externalities than our current system. But would this system be any better or worse than the one in place now?
Implementation could be done in many ways. One option would be to require people to have GPS in their cars and to allocate cost by the mile, to the road that they were driving on. This would seam fair as you would be paying for the roads you actually use. However, one consequence of this would be the unequal distribution of funds. Highly used roads may become cheaper as their capital costs would be spread across a greater number of transient users. In contrast, roads that were rarely used would either fall in disrepair or be extra expensive to drive on. The weekend hike could be very expensive if you wanted to travel to a remote location. As a result, this could induce a premium on outdoor recreation activities. This could limit outdoor use to more affluent demographics and limit low income household exposure to the great outdoors. When you don’t experience the outdoors, you don’t appreciate the outdoors, which could lead to a degradation of respect for the environment. In addition, an increase in the price to use rural roads could also have an adverse effect on Washington state parks. The price change could decrease visits to the parks, since the parks generate their own revenue, this could be a significant impact to their cashflows and in turn could put the parks under the threshold for being financially feasible to maintain.
Rural areas would not be the only ones with adverse effects of paying specifically for the roads they used. If the act was initially enacted solely for the state of Washington, there would be no way to charge visitors from other states or countries. This would mean that cities near state boarders would pay a higher rate for their roads proportional to the traffic in the area. This could be seen as a trade off as cities near the state border often benefit from out of state traffic. The context in which paying for the actual amount of road used would be key in its perceived fairness. For example, it would likely be perceived as fair that people who used more road paid more for the roads only if this was a condition before the majority of people had made the decision on where to live. On the other hand, if this type of act was imposed today there would be significant backlash because it would favor people living in denser areas over people living in less dense areas. Farmers who need to be in remote areas and truck goods long distances would be extra susceptible to the burdens of this idea. Because farmers provide a much-needed resource to the rest of the population it would be likely agreeable that their operations would be exempt from paying for their roads in full. One way to provide financial assistance to these uses would be to raise the cost in dense areas and have a portion of their costs fund the highways that served food producers. However difficult it might be to gain popular acceptance, changing the framework in which people pay for the maintenance and development of road ways has the potential to motivate the densification which in turn would preserve wildlife and increase efficiencies of our economy.