A Letter to the Past: Jonathan Chait, August 2002

Philadelphia-based freelance journalist (and one of many official reasons I will never have a paid writing gig) Jake Blumgart must have been doing some background reading last Wednesday, because he tweeted this excerpt from Jonathan Chait’s 11-year-old article on Delaware for The New Republic:

Because I am the type of person who falls for linkbait like this all the time, I clicked through and started reading. And immediately started gesticulating in rage towards my laptop screen. The opening two paragraphs, below the jump:

Until one day several years ago, I, like most people, harbored no ill feelings toward the state of Delaware. I suppose in some vague sense I thought of it as harmless and even endearing, the way you tend to regard other small things, such as Girl Scouts or squirrels. But all that changed the summer day I moved to Washington, when, making my way down I-95 in a rental truck with all of my worldly belongings, I screeched to a halt in front of what turned out to be a two-hour backup in Delaware. Never having driven down the East Coast, I at first assumed the traffic jam must have been caused by some horrific accident. But as my truck crept forward I saw it was no accident at all but a deliberate obstruction–specifically, a tollbooth on the Delaware Turnpike. Slowly the full horror of it sunk in: The State of Delaware had turned the East Coast’s main traffic artery into a sweltering parking lot merely so it could exact a tribute from each driver crossing its miserable little stretch of concrete.

The practice of charging road tolls is an archaic holdover blighting much of the Northeast. But Delaware has taken it to a grotesque extreme. Whereas the I-95 tolls amount to less than five cents per mile in New Jersey and four cents per mile in Maryland, in Delaware they cost an exorbitant 18 cents per mile. Which isn’t surprising because, in a deeper sense, Delaware’s tolls epitomize the state’s entire ethos. The organizing principle of Delaware government is to subsidize its people at the rest of the country’s expense. While tolls represent the most obvious of the state’s nefarious methods, Delaware also utilizes its appallingly lax regulation of banks and corporations to enrich itself while undermining its neighbors. Indeed, Delaware’s image as small and inoffensive is not merely a misconception but a purposeful guise. It presents itself as a plucky underdog peopled by a benevolent, public-spirited, entrepreneurial citizenry. In truth, it is a rapacious parasite state with a long history of disloyalty and avarice.

Well. Where to start? I followed up with a fast, annoyed twitter exchange that eventually included Chait as well as Blumgart, but really there is a lot more to say than is possible to cover in 140-character chunks. So I’ll cover as much as I can here, where things are a little more freeform.

First of all, Chait’s larger points about Delaware’s extreme pandering to corporate, especially consumer financial interests, are 1) well-taken, 2) vitally important, much more so than my quibbling about his past self’s lack of understanding of transportation policy, and all the more so now that the unrestrained vampire squids have come close once to destroying global capitalism, and threaten to do so again at any moment, and 3) are completely off-topic to this blog. Sorry.

Second, I am not going to hold anything Chait wrote eleven years ago against him (unless he wants to specifically re-up on an argument) and neither should you. Eleven years for a professional idea merchant like Chait is well past the statute of limitations, and the gods know there’s plenty of things that I thought in 2002 that I no longer believe today, or even find embarrassing. I normally enjoy his writing, and take his byline generally as a mark of quality; having this old piece accidentally dredged from the depths is not going to change that for me.

Third, and moving to the meat of things, Delaware’s strategy to “subsidize its people at the rest of the country’s expense” is what the other 49 states also try to do, day in and day out, in what passes for our federal system of government. It just looks (more) absurd because Delaware is so tiny and unpopulated. But where larger states with more powerful Congressional delegations vie for each other’s money in more direct fashions in Washington, Delaware’s delegation, even possessing 2.5 Senators as it does now, is unable to compete in such games (Massachusetts had the strength to get a $14 billion highway project; a megaproject for Wilmington would be laughed out of the room), and must employ asymmetric strategies. I don’t agree that we should condemn Delaware merely for the effrontery to try to secure its own interests. The methods, of course, are fair game for criticism. And the entire system of representative-beggar-thy-neighbor is always a legitimate target. I’m going to have quite a bit to say about that in the context of Pennsylvania’s transportation funding crisis. But in the meantime, “don’t hate the player, hate the game“.

Fourth, far from being “blighting”, tolls on expressways are awesome. Really. Superhighways are massively expensive, even outside of Boston, and are an ongoing black hole of expense decades after their construction, requiring constant upkeep. They also foster terrible development patterns, gutted neighborhoods, and urban disinvestment in their wake. I support reforms of tolling systems, including time-of-day congestion charging, and a greater reliance on electronic tolling to reduce congestion and land use at toll plazas, but please do not try to convince me that tolls are evil, because you are simply wrong and are wasting both your time and mine. As I said in the twitter exchange with Chait, I have been known to say that the Federal Government’s prohibition of tolling federally-funded highways was the worst American policy blunder of the 20th Century: worse than any action taken in respect to Vietnam, worse than the Smoot-Hawley tariff, worse than the failure to follow up military aid to the Afghan mujahideen with development aid after the Soviet withdrawal, worse than the Major League Baseball antitrust exemption, etc., etc. Because what is actually blighting is free highways, that convey no price signal to their users. And asking the victims of that blighting influence to fund their further victimization is, in my view, immoral.

Fifth, Delaware, unsurprisingly, has a very high ratio of people who are trying to travel across it without stopping to actual residents. Having one of the highest toll rates in the nation is therefore an obvious choice; laying the burden for the construction of through-routes on the users of those routes is justice, not avarice. Similar thought processes went into the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike as a toll road connecting New York City to points south and west, six years before the Interstate Highway Act; New Yorkers were not going to pay income, sales, or property taxes to New Jersey, not even for the great convenience and benefit of the connection, and would only pay gasoline taxes by choice. The Turnpike’s toll rates were only held down by political pressure after the suburbanization of New Jersey and the metamorphosis of the Turnpike from a six lane through route to a fourteen lane commuter road; elsewise, New Jersey would have had no reason not to soak drivers for whatever the market would bear. That party has ended, and toll rates in New Jersey are spiralling upward under a massive load of Transportation Trust Fund debt.

And it’s not as though Delaware has a large tax base that could be asked to shoulder the burden of funding the Delaware Turnpike. Only 897,934 people lived there as of the 2010 Census. Revoking I-95 tolls would blow a $119.4 million/year (FY 2010) hole in Delaware’s already-stretched transportation budget, a slightly larger figure than the receipts from Delaware’s 23 cent/gallon gasoline tax. Attempting to replace I-95 tolls with gas taxes is clearly infeasible, and replacing toll money with general fund taxes would be extremely difficult in a state that dubs itself “the Home of Tax-Free Shopping”. It could theoretically be done, with an income tax rise averaging $11.05/month for every man, woman, and child in the First State, but that’s an impossible political lift for a change almost entirely to the benefit of New Yorkers, New Jerseyans, Pennsylvanians, Marylanders, and Virginians. And, again, that is only the practicalities of the proposal, before accounting for the morality of the request.

Sixth, it’s not as though Delaware is just sitting on that money. One thing that’s changed since 2002 is that the Newark Toll Plaza’s notorious traffic backups are going extinct, thanks to a $30 million reconfiguration that added multiple EZPass Express lanes in each direction. As the great majority of frequent Northeastern drivers now have EZPass, most traffic crossing the DE/MD border on I-95 pays their $4.00 at an unbroken 65 mph. The State of Delaware has, much to my gratification, made a priority of upgrading its section of the Northeast Corridor, clearing track bottlenecks that are preventing SEPTA service to Newark from being anything better than abysmal. Better rail service parallel to I-95 saves money in the future by obviating any future expansion of the road, and provides equity if Delaware should implement time-of-day congestion tolling at a later date. It is also preparing to spend $738 million on a new highway upgrade of US-301, about which more in a moment. And Delaware is slowly digging itself out of the mountain of bad decisions it made in the heyday of the automobile, before the true costs of bad design and bad planning were apparent, one restored street and one flown-over cloverleaf ramp at a time.

Seventh, and last, nobody in their right mind driving to the District of Columbia, or points south, should ever pass through the Newark Toll Plaza at an hour when it was ever likely to be jammed. No, none, bad, you’re doing it wrong. At any time except the beginning or end of a summer weekend, when the actual threat of congestion comes from beach resort traffic, you should avoid I-95 in between Churchman’s Crossing and the Capital Beltway, and follow DE-1, US-301, and US-50 down the Eastern Shore to the Bay Bridge.

While not strictly shorter, the Eastern Shore Route has much lighter traffic than any of the routes through or just skirting Baltimore, and has a much nicer approach route either into DC (driving or parking at New Carrollton) or around it to Virginia. Right now, there is a gap between the MD/DE state line (US-301 is a four lane divided highway in MD, and a two-lane country road in DE) and DE-1, where the route is not on highway, but even then it’s worth it. The State of Delaware, as mentioned, is spending almost three quarters of a billion dollars to bypass that gap with ~20 miles of toll highway (in case you needed further proof that roads are expensive). The Eastern Shore Route also has lower tolls, which is proper for an uncongested through-route with little local traffic. On the I-95 Western Shore route, round-trip tolls are $24 if one does not take I-695 the long way around Central Baltimore, which little through-traffic does. Round-trip tolls on the Eastern Shore route are $8-10, plus an additional $6 if one continues on US-301 through Southern Maryland towards Richmond, bypassing all of the Washington DC area. In addition to being virtuous and not contributing to the destruction of Baltimore by the car, this also removes you from the hazards of the Capital Beltway in particular and Maryland Drivers in general. For both travelers and the state, even eleven-years-ago Jon Chait and I ought to be able to agree: this is a win-win.

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8 thoughts on “A Letter to the Past: Jonathan Chait, August 2002”

  1. I can’t agree with you on the 301 route. Sure, 301 itself is lightly traveled (and is beautiful too), but 13/DE1 is a exurb snarled nightmare and 50 in MD often jams with eastern shore traffic.

    There’s a time and a place for the 301 route, but it is not categorically better than 95, especially depending on where around DC you’re going and how you plan to get through Baltimore.

    I can agree with you on tolls though. In general, they’re great. And as of this year, on 95 south of Delaware they are exploding as part of the new Chesapeake Bay Management Plan.

    Finally, you’re not really telling people the right way to avoid the Delaware Turnpike toll, which is this, assuming you value the money over the time and the traffic lights (hellish google maps link follows):

    https://www.google.com/maps/preview#!data=!1m4!1m3!1d28129!2d-75.7740774!3d39.6480182!4m29!3m28!1m5!1sPhiladelphia%2C+PA!2s0x89c6b7d8d4b54beb%3A0x89f514d88c3e58c1!3m2!3d39.952335!4d-75.163789!1m5!1sWashington%2C+D.C.%2C+DC!2s0x89b7c6de5af6e45b%3A0xc2524522d4885d2a!3m2!3d38.9072309!4d-77.0364641!2e0!3m8!1m3!1d113753!2d-77.102156!3d38.8808165!3m2!1i1745!2i879!4f13.1!9m5!2m2!3d39.659564!4d-75.7640291!3s0x89c7a976f717c831%3A0x52c46f5876c45c59!4f0.735674&fid=0

    1. I’ve long used the 295-50(NYAve-US1-ConstAve)-29 route for going from the Northeast Corridor to Lynchburg.[1] While not faster than the Beltway under ideal Beltway conditions, that 50 route has a far, far, far lower standard deviation of travel times than the Beltway. Plus, it’s more interesting, especially when the National Christmas Tree is in season.

      I’ve never tried the DE-1, US-301, and US-50 route; if I drive to/from Lynchburg in the near future (reasonably likely, with a moving van) I might try it.

      [1]… when driving, that is. More often, I use the Crescent or, now, the New Train if I can’t get a reservation on the Crescent (I do enjoy my dinner in the diner), or on one occasion even the Cardinal with a “can you come pick me up in C’ville?”.

  2. I have to contest the implication that DE-1 through New Castle County is a worse exurban nightmare than I-95 through Harford and Baltimore Counties. The interchange at Christiana is enough of a pain that I memorized every possible local route to avoid it for work purposes, but some of that is because it’s in the middle of being reconfigured. As for shore traffic, I’ve accidentally put myself on the Bay Bridge going in the reverse-peak direction twice now, and found it “interesting”, but didn’t find myself slowing much for it; looking over at the lanes going in the peak direction, of course, was a view of a parking lot. Shore traffic is best avoided.

    I would pick US-50/New York Ave for any destination in the District; I-95 is still indicated for Montgomery County and northern Prince George’s. I worded that sentence carefully. -_^

    Can you expand more on the “Chesapeake Bay Management Plan” and the relation to tolling? I’m not familiar with it, and would appreciate a link or two.

  3. Googled and it looks like no, I’m wrong. Sorry. My recollection of the various right-wing anti-taxes and fees op-ed screeds I’ve read in the Sun and Post got scrambled. The tolls are for highway expenses, the stormwater fees are for the Bay. Runoff and all that.

    Apologies!

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