Are Toll Roads Sinful?

Today’s First Reading cautions us to “show no partiality” between the rich and the poor, saying “if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person with shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It’s become the fashion to expand road capacity by adding toll lanes, creating two classes of drivers:  Those who take the toll lanes and speed to their destination and those who don’t who sit mired in traffic for an extra half-hour or more.

Some toll lanes are designed, as those on the Capitol Beltway in Virginia are, to charge a higher price the more people use them.  The idea is that this “dynamic pricing” will ensure that all drivers in the toll lanes will get to their destinations speedily; the price goes as high as it needs to in order to prevent too many drivers from clogging the road.  The price on the Capitol Beltway can range from 20 cents a mile to as much as $9.50 a mile on Oct. 30, 2013.

Doesn’t this amount to showing “partiality” between those that can afford to pay $95 a trip ($1,000 a week) or more to get to work and those that can’t?   And if so, isn’t that exactly what Pope Francis was talking about in his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” when he wrote we have to say “no to an economy of exclusion and inequality?

“Such an economy kills,” the Pope says.  “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”

In the case of toll roads — and particularly those such as the Virginia project where a private company reaps the profits while legislators reap campaign contributions –aren’t we reminded of the Depression-era song where “the rich get rich and the poor get poorer”?

Poorer not just in terms of less money, but more importantly in terms of time available to spend with their families, with reading, with recreation.

“Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us,” the Pope says.

About Joel Whitaker

Joel Whitaker is a long-time professional journalist (Tampa Bay Times, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Bulletin, Institutional Investor, executive newsletters) and Catholic convert. He is the RCIA coordinator for his parish.
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