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Wanted: One Tolling Trailblazer

By: 
Bill Cramer

We just need one trailblazing state to lead.

That’s the simplest takeaway from Interstate 2.0, the Reason Foundation report that shows how 99% of the cost of modernizing America’s Interstate highway system could be covered by per-mile tolls, collected through all-electronic tolling.

The report contains in-depth, state-by-state assessment of the $589 billion in reconstruction and $394 billion in lane additions that will be needed to bring the Interstate system up to a 21st century standard. But in the end, translating that analysis into action will depend on political will. Reason’s Bob Poole notes that:

Converting from the 20th-century Interstate 1.0 to a toll-financed Interstate 2.0 would be a major change, which elected officials may be leery of leading. That’s why it is critically important that one pioneering state step forward to be a role model for the others.

The Reauthorization Campaign Begins

With that comment, Reason connects the dots from the transportation infrastructure crisis to the steps Congress can take to break the funding logjam. As the study points out, U.S. federal law prohibits tolling for Interstate reconstruction, beyond the three states that have been approved for tolling pilot projects.

“This situation could be changed by Congress in the 2014 reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program,” the Foundation argues. “The one step needed is to “mainstream” the tolled-reconstruction pilot program so that it is available to all states, and applicable to all of a state’s Interstate facilities.”

That one change—against a backdrop of failing gas tax revenues, mounting highway congestion, and cost-effective, all-electronic toll collection technology—would pave the way to a mileage-based system for financing America’s busiest highways.

“Over several decades, the transformation of the Interstate system, state by state, would convert at least one-fourth of all travel from per-gallon fuel taxes to per-mile charging.”

A ‘Surprisingly Positive Result’

Although voters tend to support tolling if it’s an alternative to higher taxes, the Reason Foundation argued for “value-added tolling” as a way of linking the tolls drivers pay to the benefits they see on the roads they drive. “Instead of trying to use tolling as a general statewide funding source,” users should only be asked to pay tolls in circumstances where they “would personally get significant added value.”

With that principle built into the analysis, the Foundation concluded that Interstate toll rates of 3.5¢ per mile for cars and 14¢ per mile for trucks would by more than enough to fund reconstruction and widening in 30 states—a finding that Reason itself described as “a surprisingly positive result.”

Making the Case

Interstate 2.0 makes a compelling argument for per-mile tolls.

They can be tailored to the cost of building and maintaining each road and bridge, rather than averaged across all types of roads.

They’re fair, since users pay for the roads they drive.

They guarantee ongoing maintenance of tolled corridors and deliver cash flow to fund future improvements.

They enable states to fund projects when they’re needed, rather than waiting decades for capital dollars.

It’s a powerful case for action. And none of it is new to tolling industry advocates.

The transportation reauthorization bill is scheduled for mid-2014. That means we have nine months to make our voices heard. Now is the time to get involved with IBTTA’s Moving America Forward campaign, to position tolling as a key tool in the transportation funding toolbox.

photo credit: Steve Corey via photopin cc