Saturday, July 18, 2015

Driving Away The Madness

Before self-driving cars become a commercial reality, automakers and tech companies are going to have to prove to lawmakers at the state level that these vehicles can handle all kinds of conditions while ruthlessly obeying traffic laws and speed limits all the time, every time.  But the unintended consequences of that on cities and local governments is that excellent drivers don't get tickets needed to fill city fund coffers.

Once the car’s in charge, it’s a safe bet we won’t do things like speed, run reds, park illegally, or drive drunk. And that means we won’t be fined for doing those things. That’s going to put the squeeze on city budgets, according to a Brookings Institution report.

“Local governments have viewed their sources of revenue and planned around revenue from the perspective of, ‘We can tax people in a very structured and predictable manner,'” says Kevin Desouza, an Arizona State University and one of the report’s authors. They can count on catching us breaking the law often enough to keep the money flowing. But once that’s passed, “they’re going to lose out in the long run.”

There are no national numbers indicating how much American drivers shell out in traffic violation fines, but the report puts the total in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Los Angeles, for example, collected $161 million from parking tickets in 2014. Twenty cities in California take in $40 million every year from towing cars, splitting that money with the tow companies.

On top of that, if the theory that self-driving cars will lead people to own fewer cars holds up, revenue from registration fees will drop as well.

Again, great news for people who don’t like, or can’t afford, paying fines and fees. But that money finances things like transportation infrastructure and maintenance, public schools, judicial salaries, domestic violence advocacy, conservation, and many other public services, the report notes.

Meanwhile, we’ll still expect our cities to pay to keep the roads in good shape, since no matter who’s driving, potholes stink.

And that's actually a big issue.  We've critically underfunded road infrastructure for years, and with Republicans in charge of Congress and many state legislatures, there's no way that will ever get fixed.  Without revenue for roads, there may not be anything for self-driving cars to drive on.

Remember President Obama coming to Cincy for his infrastructure bill four years ago?  That bill died pretty quickly and our bridges and roads are in even worse shape now.

Eventually taxpayers will end up paying for them, one way or another.

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