Interstate Tolling: Is the Free Ride Over?

If you didn’t already know it, states across the country are considering plans to toll interstate highways. For several years, Pennsylvania officials have been trying to get federal approval to toll Interstate 80, and just last month, the State of Virginia proposed tolling Interstate 95. (Click here to read more about it.)

Other states such as Wyoming, Kansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina have also been studying the concept.

The idea is such a hot topic that back in April, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association raised the issue on their “Tolling Points” blog, asking the question, “What is the Future for Tolling U.S. Interstate Highways?”

The National Journal Blog also featured a healthy debate on the issue.

In Seattle, elected officials have already recognized this fact and have passed a long range plan that calls for user charges on all freeways by 2030, if not sooner.

Personally, I am opposed to tolling the interstate system. My preference is for “strategic tolling” where we maximize the efficiency of new capacity through the implementation of user fee-based Express Lanes. These lanes, when combined with bus rapid transit, offer our best hope for maximizing mobility in constrained corridors. But Express Lanes aren’t a solution to the much larger funding crisis facing our nation, and that’s where the dilemma lies.

With the gas tax effectively being phased out by inflation, increased fuel efficiency, alternative fuels and politics, we are entering a period of funding chaos that stretches far beyond the interstate system. That’s because the gas tax is a critical funding source for more things than just roads, and interstate tolling is just one reaction to a much more complex problem.

In Texas for example, under the state constitution, 25% of gas tax revenue is dedicated to schools. In many states the gas tax is also a major source of funding for public transit. That’s the case in Pennsylvania where they wanted to use tolls from I-80, in part, to fund public transit agencies in Pittsburg and Philadelphia, as well as non-tolled roadways far from the I-80 corridor. The Federal Highway Administration rejected the request because under current federal law you can only toll an existing interstate highway if you use the money on that specific interstate.

In principle that makes sense. People generally expect that when they pay for a service such as using a road, the money collected will be used to fund the maintenance and expansion of that road. But, as we seek new ways to fund transportation, such as tolling interstates, we will face some difficult questions. Should it happen at all? Who will control toll rates? Who will allocate the revenue? How will we pay for everything the gas tax used to fund? How will we ensure revenue won’t be siphoned off to fund other non-transportation projects or some entity’s general fund shortfall? These are all difficult questions that are already stirring much debate in Washington D.C. and in state houses across the country. The bottom line is the perceived “free ride” may be coming to an end, not just for users of the interstate system but for all kinds of government programs that have been paid for by the gas tax over the years.

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