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Tolling Points

With Gas Tax Hike on the Table, Support for Tolling Grows

By: 
Bill Cramer

A funny thing happened last week when the national dialogue on the White House infrastructure plan began pointing toward a long-overdue increase in the federal gas tax.

Suddenly, support for tolling began popping out of the woodwork, with one conservative Washington Beltway newspaper and one well-known trucking podcaster making it very clear that they would prefer an established, sophisticated form of user financing over a tax increase.

IBTTA supports the full spectrum of funding and financing options—including a realistic gas tax, indexed to inflation—to help the United States reverse a decades-long infrastructure investment deficit. And the reaction to the prospect of a gas tax increase opens an important national conversation about how we pay for the shared services we want and need that are bigger and more expensive than any one of us can afford on our own.

But the emerging groundswell of support for tolling reinforces something tolling operators already know—from the response we get from satisfied users, and from public opinion polls that show strong support for specific tolling projects at the local and state levels: large proportions of Americans want better, safer, more reliable highways, they understand that you get what you pay for, and they’re looking for practical transportation solutions, not a gridlocked debate that never seems to resolve.

Paying for Your Own Wear and Tear

The opinion piece in The Washington Examiner was motivated by a major push on Capitol Hill from the American Trucking Associations, calling on the Trump Administration to back up its infrastructure plan with a major gas tax hike. The Washington Examiner sees that idea as a taxpayer subsidy to big business, pointing to the disproportionate wear and tear highways sustain as a result of heavy truck traffic.

“The damage that vehicles do to road surfaces does not rise proportionally according to vehicle weight,” the editors write. “Rather, it rises exponentially according to vehicle weight,” which is why commercial trucking industry “is so eager to fund infrastructure going forward by increasing the very tax that falls most disproportionately on the other users of the roads. They don't want new highways to be tolled, because they are the most likely to use tolled highways on a given day, and the tolls, which can be set by axle, will fall on them most heavily.”

In other words, the Examiner is saying we should fund our highways the way most of us run our households and live our lives: You pay for what you use.  

That means the average motorist “should of course pay his [or her] fair share for federally funded infrastructure — after all, many motorists do use highways,” the paper notes. “But it simply isn’t fair to rely on the gas tax as the big infrastructure funding solution for the future. It would be much fairer, and just as feasible given current technology, to let the states toll many more highways and to lean on higher truck tolls especially.”

Pay a Toll, Know You’re Safe

The other voice favoring tolls over a gas tax was Fort Wayne, IN trucking blogger and podcaster Matthew Garnett, who said the private sector is in the best position to deliver the highway improvements the country needs.

“I’d like to see them put some of these interstates up for sale, get them out to some private companies,” he told Fox Business News. “They might charge tolls on them, but they’re going to be well improved and taken care of by the free market.”

He added that “I would rather pay some tolls, know the roads I’m going to be on are safe for me and the people around me, rather than depend on the federal government.” As for a gas tax increase, he told Fox, “that’s nonsense. If they charge us more gas tax to pay for [the infrastructure plan], that’s going to make me pretty mad.”

Garnett arrives at his preference for tolling from a different starting point. But his points still dovetail nicely with the Examiner’s argument that “commercial trucking is vital to America’s economy. But that doesn’t mean the industry should be able to impose its costs to taxpayers. The cost of roads should be borne as much as possible by those who use the roads most and do the most road damage, and by the customers to whom they would have to pass the higher costs.”

Still Just One Tool in the Toolbox

IBTTA and its member agencies have always taken the position that tolling is one important tool in the toolbox, not a single silver bullet that can solve every highway funding challenge in a single swipe. That bottom-line reality doesn’t change, even if the political winds are beginning to shift in our favor.

There’s still a vast difference in user profile, traffic volume, and business models between a suburban corridor in Colorado, a freight route in Pennsylvania, or a rural interstate in Idaho. They’re all likely to need new funding for maintenance and refurbishment, but they won’t all be suitable sites for a successful tolling project.

But with $1.3 trillion to be filled in over the next decade—as Fox Business points out, that’s the gap between the White House infrastructure target and the dollars the Trump administration is putting up as seed money—there will be more than enough to do for any single funding or financing source, including tolling. It’s a good start that the Examiner, Fox Business, and Matthew Garnett are making the case for the wider toolbox the country will need.

Join the conversation, share the benefits of tolling in your own city, county, state or Congressional district! Visit IBTTA’s Moving America Forward public awareness campaign page for tips and tools.

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