Opinion

Living here, working there has a cost

State Sens. Bob Oke and Tim Sheldon have highlighted two apparent shortcomings in the transportation budget and revenue proposals made by the Senate Transportation Committee.

The revenue proposals include an increase in the vehicle fuel tax, yet there is little benefit to residents of Kitsap and Mason counties from that higher tax.

Oke has stated his support of any such proposal depends on including some relief for people who will be paying a toll to cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

Once they cross that bridge, people residing in the West Sound area may well benefit from less traffic congestion, if the higher tax is spent on projects which actually reduce congestion. But first they must pay to cross the bridge, while people living on the other side naturally do not pay the bridge toll.

Sheldon has withheld his support, having noted that there is nothing in the budget proposal that would tend to increase the number of jobs in Kitsap and Mason counties.

So long as the rate of job growth on this side of Puget Sound doesn’t increase, a large proportion of our residents will continue to have longer commutes than the average in order to get to and from work.

The proposed higher gas tax would, of course, increase the commuters’ cost, but the only benefit is the possibility of reduced congestion once they reach the other side of Puget Sound.

And there would be no end in sight to the need to work somewhere other than the counties in which those commuters now live.

These apparent shortcomings are two sides of the same coin: Living here while working there comes at a cost.

Is there a point at which the cost imposed on commuters is unfair?

Suppose one adopts the view that natural market forces will resolve the question of fairness in individual cases, so that it isn’t necessary to answer it in the Legislature.

Individuals decide where to live and work based on their own perceptions of the costs relative to the benefits.

Costs aren’t limited to monetary measures. For example, spending frustrating hours each week commuting to and from work may eventually seem more costly than the money which would be spent to pay higher housing prices elsewhere — so the individual moves.

Likewise, benefits aren’t measured solely in dollars. Having a home in a more pleasant area may be valued highly enough by individuals that they choose to live there despite a longer commute to work.

When it comes to fashioning a transportation package in the Legislature, it’s really true that you can’t please everybody. The costs and benefits factored into each individual’s decision are so much a matter of personal opinion as to make it impossible to propose a plan which leaves everyone at least as happy as before.

Taking that view of the issue, one might simply seek to raise taxes and spend the additional revenue where it appears to be most needed based on choices people have already made about their places of residence.

In short, you seek to relieve traffic congestion where it now exists and let each individual decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits of that individual’s choice of residence.

If they don’t like the new situation, they move.

Such an approach isn’t likely to work — and not because it contradicts the central planning processes so loved by growth management advocates.

When it comes to taxing and spending, we judge fairness by the benefits gained and the costs suffered by large groups of people — not by attempting to examine the effect on each individual.

If the costs imposed on one group clearly are higher in comparison to another group, yet the ones paying the higher costs actually receive less of a benefit compared to the others, our sense of fairness tells us the plan is wrong.

When the uneven treatment of the two groups appears to be the result of greater political influence on the side of those who benefited more relative to the costs they shouldered, the sense of unfairness is increased.

Since people in regions with the greater political influence will normally get the better part of the deal, taxing and spending issues necessarily involve political competition between regions.

Oke and Sheldon obviously recognize this aspect of the situation, and they are correct to note it and act upon it.

It may often be fairest to require what amounts to a “user fee” for some projects. For example, a toll to pay the cost of a new bridge.

It doesn’t suddenly become unfair to charge a toll when the bridge or viaduct is located in a region with greater political influence.

Living in an area where there are fewer jobs often requires a longer commute to the region where more jobs are located.

While it’s necessary to keep up with the demand for road capacity to relieve traffic congestion, it’s also advisable to keep an eye peeled for ways to improve the job market nearer to where people live.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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