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Tolling the Interstate Highways

Posted by Ken Orski on Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Innovation Newsbriefs
Vol. 24, No. 14

Robert Poole, co-founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation and its Director of Transportation Policy has produced a study that is bound to create more than a ripple inside the transportation community. The study, entitled  “Interstate 2.0: Modernizing the Interstate Highway System via Toll Finance,”  was officially released on September 12. It’s an impressive piece of scholarship and  quantitative analysis that deserves thoughtful consideration by all who are concerned about  the long-term future of the nation’s surface transportation system. 

Poole focusses on the Interstate Highway System which is nearing the end of its 50-year design life and which, he claims, will need to be thoroughly reconstructed over the next two decades. In addition, he assumes that some one hundred interchanges that are major bottlenecks will need to be redesigned and reconstructed and about 200 corridors will require additional lane widenings to cope with projected traffic. 

How is this monumental, near trillion-dollar effort to be financed? ($983 billion to be exact according to the author’s  calculations—$589 billion for reconstruction and $394 billion for lane additions)  Poole envisions tolling the entire Interstate system using all-electronic tolling (AET) techology— applying a “mileage-based user fee”  in  technical lingo, set at 3.5 cents/mile for cars and 14 cents/mile for trucks for purposes of the analysis. (In fact, current average highway toll is closer to 10 cents/mile).  Importantly, Interstate tolling would be introduced progressively, as and when  Interstate corridors are reconstructed and widened and only if tolling adds value in terms of smoother traffic flow —something that Poole calls “value added tolling”  Presumably, a staged introduction of  Interstate highway tolling would help to overcome opposition to Interstate highway tolling  by familiarizing the public with the concept  gradually, over time. 

The study makes only one major policy recommendation: that Congress allow tolling of Interstate highways  “for the specific purpose of reconstruction and widening with toll revenue used only for those purposes.” The author concludes that permission from Congress is  “the one needed enabler… to begin this transition.” 

That may be too facile a conclusion. Congressional lawmakers are unlikely to act in the absence of strong pressure from their state-level transportation consituencies. And so far, there has been scant evidence of any grassroots interest in Interstate highway tolling.  Our own recent survey of “Can-Do” states has shown a large majority of state officials and state legislators critical if not overtly opposed.  So is the powerful American Trucking Association which claims tolling existing Interstates  is “a wildly unpopular concept” —and not just among their own members but among the public at large. (Poole, on the other hand, argues that “the public favors tolls if the alternative is taxes,” citing a study by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program).  Even if Congress relented and abolished the current prohibition to toll the Interstates, there might be few takers. Skeptics in and out of Congress point to the existing three-state pilot program for Interstate reconstruction using toll finance—a program that has remained unimplemented for lack of legislative approvals in the three candidate states that applied for and were awarded the slots. Finally, the risk of revenue diversion to non-Interstate highway uses also has been mentioned.

So, we hope that Mr. Poole’s study will be brought not just to the attention of the Beltway audience and the toll-advocacy community where it will predictably meet with plaudits, but, more importantly, to the attention of governors, state DOTs and state legislators . Their collective judgment will be decisive in whether Congress votes in favor of lifting the current legislative restriction against Interstate tolling or leaves it in place. A presentation at the upcoming AASHTO annual conference  on October 17-22, followed by presentations at the next annual conferences of the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) would be a good way to start the dialogue. 

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 24th year of publication.

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