Small-government conservatives like to hold that transportation users should pay for infrastructure through user fees. That's what drivers do via gas taxes, they argue, and what transit riders don't do via fares.
Another view is that everyone benefits indirectly as well as directly from the entire system. Individual decisions about how to get from one place to another can impose more or less burden on the system, and we all receive some good from the efficient movement of materials, goods and services through our communities.
Rather than trying to quantify individual use, the funding system spreads the cost to everyone through a variety of taxes.
More than a century ago, when the reach and condition of roads left much to be desired, society was experimenting with different ways to pay for better infrastructure. Private companies formed to build turnpikes and toll roads. Groups of farmers and ranchers pooled their labor and equipment to improve roads so they could get their products to market.
And some communities appointed road overseers and collected taxes to maintain the roads, and if citizens couldn't pay cash, they could pay in labor.
Chaska Obscura has surfaced an account of one case taken from the town's historical records:
Charge: Charles Raasch appeared personally before me and being duly sworn and examined on his oath complains and says that he is overseer of the highway of the town of Chaska in the county of Carver and state of Minnesota that A. Lobel, a male person above 21 and under 50 years of age and not a pauper, idiot, lunatic or otherwise exempt, is a resident of said town and liable to road tax or poll tax therein for the year of 1888.
That on the 14th day of August 1888, at Chaska in said county, [Raasch] as such overseer caused A. Lobel to be duly notified to perform such labor in person or by substitute or to commit for the same, but said A. Lobel has wholly failed and refused to do so, and that such tax is wholly unpaid contrary to the forms of the statue in such case made and provided and against the peace and dignity of the state of Minnesota.
Judgment: Defendant in custody before me. Defendant duly arraigned to which he pleaded “guilty.” Whereupon I adjudge that he is guilty of the offence complained of. Thereupon defendant paid the sum of $3 the amount of such tax and the costs of this action taxed at the sum of $3.82, total $6.82. Judgment paid and this action dismissed.
Bringing back the tax exemption for idiots and lunatics might quiet some of the protests that paupers have it too easy today.