Politicians inside the Beltway that circles Washington, D.C., most of us would agree, don’t understand the challenges of daily life that average Americans face outside the Beltway.
But these days, if you really want to understand everyday life in our deeply unequal society, the best place to look may now be on the Beltway.
The highway officials who run the Beltway’s stretch that winds through Northern Virginia have just opened up the nation’s latest set of “Lexus lanes.” For a stiff fee, affluent motorists can now zip around the Beltway in “express toll lanes” while less affluent fellow motorists sit stalled in rush-hour traffic jams.
And those fellow motorists do a lot of stalling. The Washington region has more traffic congestion than any other major U.S. metro area. In 2010, commuters in the D.C. area lost an incredible 74 hours to traffic jams, up from just 20 hours in 1982.
Something else fundamental — besides traffic — has changed around Washington. The area has become substantially more unequal.
The national capital region used to be a middle class haven, a place where average federal employees, The Washington Post recalls, could take home “modest but steady paychecks.”
But the federal government has been outsourcing federal jobs, over recent decades, to private contractors. For average workers, this change has meant less secure employment and smaller paychecks. For Washington’s “growing upper class of federal contractors, lobbyists, and lawyers,” notes a recent Reuters analysis, this switch has brought a steady gusher of windfalls.
Two decades ago, a family had to make $368,000, in today’s dollars, to enter the Washington area’s most affluent 1 percent. Top 1 percent status today doesn’t kick in until $527,000. In 2011, the top 5 percent of D.C. area households took home 54 times more income than the bottom 20 percent. No state in the entire nation has a wider top-to-bottom gap.
Economists see powerful links between levels of inequality this high and traffic congestion. In deeply unequal regions, the wealthy bid up the price of the choicest real estate, and that forces cash-squeezed middle class families to move further out to find decent housing.
The further away people live from their work, the more traffic on the roads. Those American counties where commuting times have increased the most, Cornell economist Robert Frank points out, just happen to be those counties “with the largest increases in inequality.”
How should we respond to all this congested commuting? Americans have traditionally battled traffic jams by building new roads with the dollars that come from gas taxes. But state gas taxes in the United States, on average, haven’t increased in a decade. Overall government spending for infrastructure, meanwhile, has been dropping, from 3.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 1968 to 1.3 percent in 2011. This long-term decline began at almost exactly the same time as the level of inequality in the United States started rising.
Researchers see no coincidence here. The states where the rich have gained the most at the expense of the middle class turn out to be the states that invest the least in infrastructure.
Enter “Lexus lanes.” These “dynamically priced” roadways solve the problem of traffic congestion — but only for the affluent. If too many people start using a Lexus lane and traffic slows, the tolls rise — and keep rising until the car volume drops enough to get traffic moving again.
That’s no problem for the affluent. They get speedy, tension-free commutes — at a cost they find negligible.
The rest of us do get something out of the Lexus Lane deal. We get confirmation, as we sit and stew in horrific traffic, that inequality as deep as ours simply makes no sense.