Coming soon: Interstate highways to become toll roads
How should we fund 47,000 miles of interstate highway maintenance?
As it stands now, we have the Highway Trust Fund which gets its money from the 18 cent federal gas tax. But the tax hasn't been raised since 1993 and a combination of inflation and more fuel efficient cars has the government scrambling to find a way to keep the Trust Fund solvent.
There have been goofy ideas - including putting a device in every car in America so that the government can keep track of your driving, charging everyone by the mile driven rather than taking the tax out at the gas pump. The idea never got off the ground and was buried after NSA revelations of government snooping. Lord knows what the government would put in that device.
But the problem remains. These highways were built with tax dollars from Washington. But if Washington won't maintain the roads, who else but the states can do it? And the most sensible way for states to maintain the interstate is to turn them into toll roads.
Though some older segments of the network — notably the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes and Interstate 95 in Maryland and Virginia — are toll roads, most of the 46,876-mile system has been toll-free.
“We believe that this is an area where the states have to make their own decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We want to open the aperture, if you will, to allow more states to choose to make broader use of tolling, to have that option available.”
The question of how to pay to repair roadways and transit systems built in the heady era of post-World War II expansion is demanding center stage this spring, with projections that traditional funding can no longer meet the need.
That source, the Highway Trust Fund, relies on the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which has eroded steadily as vehicles have become more energy efficient.
“The proposal comes at the crucial moment for transportation in the last several years,” Foxx said. “As soon as August, the Highway Trust Fund could run dry. States are already canceling or delaying projects because of the uncertainty.”
While providing tolling as an option to states, the White House proposal relies on funding from a series of corporate tax reforms, most of them one-time revenue streams that would provide a four-year bridge to close the trust-fund deficit and permit $150 billion more in spending than the gas tax will bring in.
The corporate tax reform proposal has gotten a lukewarm reception even from Democrats in Congress, and Foxx emphasized that the administration is open to any counterproposal that wins bipartisan support.
With the trust fund about to run into the red and the current federal highway bill set to expire Sept. 30, Congress cannot — as its members often note — keep “kicking the can down the road.”
If we're going to fund road repairs using the Highway Trust Fund, we should rededicate the gas tax to funding highway programs only. As it stands now, public transportation grants and other non-highway spending is part of the trust fund spending. Before we raise the gas tax a single cent, trust fund spending must be reformed.
Tolls may be a good idea for some states, but most would find that toll roads wouldn't pay for necessary maintenance. You would defeat the purpose of the interstate highway sytsem if there were toll booths every few miles. It would also make goods that are trucked a lot more expensive.
No doubt Congress will cobble something together and we'll limp along without adequate funding to address our infrastructure crisis. Roads and bridges will not fix themselves nor will new ones be built via magic wand. Reforming the Highway Trust Fund will be a good start.