As anyone who has had the pleasure of driving on an American highway knows far too well, our country’s roads are in dire need of repair. Lack of funding and incredibly outdated infrastructure make for an often deadly combination, jeopardizing drivers’ and passengers’ safety on the road. While Washington recognizes the dangers – in fact, last year, MAP-21 (also known by its formal name, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) was passed, authorizing $105 billion of federal funds dedicated to highways, highway safety programs, and transit programs, as well as other programs – there hasn’t been much progress nor much other fundraising dedicated to finding long-term solutions.
As Ryan Holeywell writes in a recent post for the blog FedWatch, there have been a variety of fundraising proposals: raising the federal gas tax (which hasn’t been done in two decades), charging per-mile fees, and now, promoted most recently by the think tank, the Reason Foundation, allowing states to collect tolls on the interstate. Along with other advocates, the Foundation is appealing to Congress to allow states to levy interstate tolls, with the requirement that they use the funds to repair or expand the roads. As Robert Poole, Reason Foundation’s director of transportation policy, says, “There’s no serious alternative on the table anywhere that has a chance.”
Interstate tolls have historically been banned, except on certain East Coast interstates. However, through the years, as Holeywell explains, the rules were loosened: in the 1990s, states built new lanes and as a result received more power over the rules of those roads; since 1998, a new program that permits states to execute major overhauls on interstates also allows them to toll those roads. Tolling is an appropriate method for raising revenues now, argues the Reason Foundation and other supporters, because the interstate represents 25 percent of the miles driven by motorists (although interstates include just 2.5 percent of all lane-miles of roadway in America). Interstates are rapidly aging out, as their intended 50-year lifespan is drawing to a close. Additionally, it is possible – technologically speaking – to enforce widespread tolling without the cost of manning toll booths, and current traffic means that there is enough “volume to make it economically feasible.”
According to director Poole and the Foundation, tolling interstates is a simple – but likely hard-to-pass – proposition. Using traffic projections from a U.S. Department of Transportation model, Poole estimated costs on a state-by-state basis for reconstructing America’s interstates, and expanding those in need of expansion. He also estimated construction costs per state based on the price of construction in each state. His suggested toll rate was 3.5 cents per mile for cars and 14 cents per mile for trucks, adjusted for inflation each year – a rate that work in approximately 30 states, would be raised in 15 states, and would needed to be drastically dropped in six largely rural states. The conclusion? Based on these figures, the project would require $1 trillion, paid for by the tolls, with a plan to rebuild the interstate over 10 years, and to pay for it with tolling revenue over the following 35 years.
Interstate tolling is unpopular with many groups – truckers, auto clubs, and certain politicians among them. But it did appear as an amendment in the MAP-21 legislation last year (though it was eventually struck). The next step is enabling states to choose to enact tolling on their interstates. Until one state risks making the unpopular – but potentially lucrative and roadway-salvaging – move, thereby encouraging other states to do the same, all of these recommendations are mere theories.