Tolls Are Necessary To Modernize Aging Highways, Expert Says

Feb 4, 2019

The new Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson recently announced the creation of a task force to explore ways of patching holes in the department’s funding for road repairs and improvements. Transportation planners throughout the U.S. say the nation's interstates are overdue for a complete modernization, but that won't come cheap.

"They estimated the cost of this at requiring $57 billion a year, compared to the current spending — $21 billion currently being spent. And so it’s an enormous challenge to figure out how to pay for this," says Bob Poole, the director of transportation policy and a founder of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank based in Los Angeles, Cali. 

"They estimated the cost of this at requiring $57 billion a year, compared to the current spending — $21 billion currently being spent. And so it's an enormous challenge to figure out how to pay for this."

One key tactic that’s under consideration in Wisconsin is an increase in gas taxes or vehicle fees, as the revenues from those taxes/fees are required to go to transportation funding. But analysts like Poole believe another idea should be up for discussion: open road tolling. 

Both gas taxes and toll fees have been very controversial, particularly among Republicans and Conservatives, more generally. Poole believes that tolling is a better option than gas taxes because it amounts to what he calls a "pure user tax." 

"Tolls, for the most part, are a pure user fee. You only pay the toll if you use a facility that has tolls on it and if you decide that it's a better value."

"Some people equate tolls with taxes, and say, 'Well, putting a toll is as bad as increasing the gas tax.' And there's a difference in the sense that, the gas tax originally was a user — purely a user tax — and over the last 30 years or so, both Congress and state legislatures have opened up the use of gas tax revenues, mostly for other transportation," he explains. "People pay gas taxes to have better highways and some of the money is spent on mass transit."

Poole continues, "Tolls, for the most part, are a pure user fee. You only pay the toll if you use a facility that has tolls on it and if you decide that it's a better value. You know, you get time savings, you get a smoother road, or whatever, and you don't have to use it."

He admits that many interstates don't have "a comparable, high-quality parallel route," which can be concerning, particularly if trucks and other large vehicles opt to use rural routes instead.

"Of course, the fact that there's not a whole lot of it happening in Pennsylvania, in New York, in Massachusetts, and Illinois or Indiana — where interstates have been tolled since their inception —means it's not as big of a problem as some people make it out to be," he says.