Would You Pay 3.5 Cents a Mile for a New Interstate System?

Our vaunted highway system is toast, and will cost a trillion dollars or so to repair. Could user fees pay the freight?
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The I-75/I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia. (PHOTO: ATLANTACITIZEN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The I-75/I-85 in Atlanta, Georgia. (PHOTO: ATLANTACITIZEN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

This Wednesday the Transportation Planning Board for the Washington, D.C., area will consider a variety of ways to tamp down highway congestion. Perhaps the most controversial suggestion is to charge a toll on existing lanes—you know, the ones our tax dollars already paid for. But in a new report for the Libertarian-oriented Reason Foundation, their director of transportation policy suggests doing just that to save our battered interstate highway system.

Robert Poole lays out the importance of interstates—they represent one-fortieth of U.S. highways but handle one in four of all vehicle miles traveled—and their fragility. With the first generation of interstates already more than a half-century old, they need to be rebuilt, meaning as a practical matter we need a whole new system in the next two decades. He writes:

Given the large and vital role played by the Interstate system, it is surprising that its long-term existence is taken for granted. Politicians and reporters have endlessly repeated that the system was “finished” about 20 years ago, and the idea that highways and bridges eventually wear out and need to be replaced (even if well-maintained) seems to be understood only by highway engineers.

In short, we haven’t already paid for these roads. We used those highways up. We’d have lost the Appian Way, too, if it had to handle overweight 18-wheelers. We need new highways now, what Poole dubs Interstate 2.0.

Where will we get the almost trillion dollars he estimates ($589 billion for reconstruction and $394 billion for vital new lanes) will be needed just to stay in place? And his trillion dollars is actually on the low side; infrastructure consultants Ed Regan and Steven Brown put the bill as high as $2.5 trillion two years ago.

Right now, the only possible answer is a combination of fuel taxes and existing highway trust funds. But Poole finds that answer untenable: “Steady increases in vehicle fuel economy, the lack of inflation indexing of fuel tax rates, and political gridlock over increasing fuel tax rates all make it very difficult even to maintain current pavement and bridge conditions and prevent congestion from getting even worse.”

His answer, not surprising given the Reason Foundation’s bent, is user fees, i.e. tolls. Talk about using tolls to pay for interstate work, either fixes or additions, has been around for a while, although usually as an addendum to the gas tax (groan) instead of a replacement—but only for additional asphalt.

We quoted transportation consultant and editor C. Kenneth Orski on the drive for tolling to pay for new roads five years ago:

The conclusion stems neither from an ideological preference for ‘privatization’ nor from a libertarian impulse to seek a reduced federal presence in the nation’s transportation program. Rather, it is grounded in the reality that every last cent that can be raised through the gas tax will be needed to maintain and modernize our aging highway infrastructure. Resorting to tolls and private capital to help finance future highway capacity is the best way to ensure the future growth of the nation’s surface highway network without imposing an unacceptable tax burden on the American people.

In their "Building the Case for Tolling the Interstates" paper of 2011 (which appeared in the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association’s journal Tollways), Regan and Brown tallied 3,175 miles of the 47,016 existing miles of interstate that is currently tolled, from the 11 miles of Delaware Turnpike to the 641 of the New York Thruway. The furthest west for any pay system are the Kansas, Oklahoma, and Dallas-Fort Worth turnpikes. Most of those 3,175 miles were existing highways absorbed by the interstate system, since the feds generally don’t allow their highway dollars to be spent on “existing” tolled stretches—a sop, perhaps, to public sentiment, as Poole implies:

If you ask people in a public opinion poll if they want to pay tolls, they generally say no. They say the same thing if you ask them if they want to pay any kind of new tax. It’s only when you give them a realistic situation and ask them to pick the best (or least bad) option that you learn something useful.

Asked to choose between tolls, higher gas taxes, a transportation-specific sales tax, higher property taxes, or bonds that are paid off through future incomes taxes, polls in the last decade usually come up tolling. “And the explanation is pretty obvious,” Poole writes. “Under all four tax alternatives, the only thing the voter can be sure of, if the measure passes, is that she will pay higher taxes; she has no confidence that the road/bridge/lanes will actually be built.”

Regan and Brown didn’t push their hood as far out into the intersection as Poole; they suggested tolls were an interim step in rescuing our interstates. They called for relaxing federal prohibitions on interstate user fees in states that choose to embrace tolling, not as an all-or-nothing switch in revenue sources.

The federal roadblock is also the biggest obstacle Poole sees in his toll proposal, and it’s something he says could be leveled as soon as next year’s highway bill. And while it might seem that the political blowback will be extreme, he argues that charging the tolls on the spiffy 2.0 interstates, instead of the crumbling old ones, will provide the extra value to get over that hump.

And what would the tolls cost? The short answer is 3.5 cents a mile for cars and 14 cents a mile for trucks. The rates could be tailored for individual states or conditions, such as efforts to reduce traffic at rush hour.

If next year’s highway bill seems a little to0 presumptuous for wholesale change—even if highway engineers say we’re already living on borrowed time—how about a pilot program or two? That’s actually already been mapped out, although political gridlock has prevented any movement:

Only three states have permission, under a pilot program, to use toll finance to reconstruct a single Interstate highway each: Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia. None of them has reached political agreement on actually doing this, to date. But as the reality of the cost of Interstate reconstruction and modernization sinks in, and the low cost and convenience of all-electronic toll collection becomes better understood, elected officials may catch up with public sentiment that is already receptive to tolling as better than (or less bad than) increases in transportation taxes to pay for major new investments in highway infrastructure.

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