By Robert W. Poole, Jr., Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow
Introduction: Why Take a Fresh Look at Tolling?
Toll roads in America date back to colonial times. Entrepreneurs in the late 1700s and early 1800s requested and received charters from state governments, enabling them to raise money from investors to improve dirt tracks between towns into regularly maintained roads—in exchange for charging users a toll. Transportation historians have estimated that between 2,500 and 3,200 toll companies built and operated such roads in the 19th century, encompassing between 30,000 and 52,000 miles at various times. The first wave of toll roads occurred in the northeastern states in the late 1700s and early 1800s. And the same pattern was repeated in the western states, especially California, after the Civil War, as those states were settled.
Unfortunately for early toll road investors, first canals and later railroads offered better mobility for freight and passengers once those more-expensive infrastructures came into use, and nearly all the early toll roads ended in bankruptcy. And when motor vehicles were invented around the turn of the 20th century, the much higher cost of paved roads appeared beyond the ability of investors to finance. The invention of per-gallon fuel taxes, first in Oregon and soon thereafter in the other states, provided an alternate way to pay for paved highways, and such user taxes (generally dedicated to highways) became the mainstay of highway funding.
But in the early years of the 21st century, the fuel tax appears to be the highway funding source of the past, not the future. Federal energy and environmental policy has led to increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards for new vehicles. In the 2013 model year, the corporate average fuel economy of new vehicles averaged 24.7 miles/gallon (mpg). That is nearly double what cars got several decades ago, which means today’s new cars go twice as far on a gallon of gas as they did then. But since the gas tax is paid per gallon, unless the tax rate had been doubled (which it has not been), cars are paying about half as much per mile driven as they did in, say, 1970. And this situation will soon get much worse. Current federal standards require the average new car to achieve 34.5 mpg by 2016 and a whopping 54.5 mpg by 2025. That means by 2025 cars will go twice as far as they do today per gallon used, and that the revenue generated per mile driven will be only half as much.
That is a major problem, because the cost of building new highways, reconstructing highways and bridges as they wear out, and properly maintaining them year after year increases at least as much as consumer price inflation—yet fuel taxes (except in a handful of states) are not indexed for inflation. But even simple inflation-indexing would be no match for the mandated increase in mpg between now and 2025. If we continue to use fuel taxes as the primary highway funding source, the rates would have to be increased by considerably more than the consumer price index to prevent continued shrinking of highway budgets.
And even if the fuel tax were to be patched up in these ways, between now and 2025 a growing fraction of all highway users will be employing energy sources other than gasoline and diesel fuel. All-electric vehicles (such as made by Tesla) are in their infancy, but could become a significant part of the fleet by 2025. Hybrids, cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and trucks powered by natural gas are all potentially feasible ways in which portions of the vehicle fleet will opt out of using gasoline and diesel in coming years. Yet the costs of building, maintaining and rebuilding highways are independent of the way motor vehicles are powered. Basic fairness demands that all vehicles pay their share of the costs of the highway infrastructure they use.
For these reasons two national commissions, a great many transportation researchers and many state departments of transportation (DOTs) have concluded that America must begin a transition from per-gallon user taxes to per-mile user fees. And one of the most basic forms of per-mile user fee is tolling.
Toll roads were almost unheard of in the early days of paved highways funded by fuel taxes. But when the idea of superhighways came along in the 1930s and 1940s, their cost appeared to be far more than then-current fuel tax rates could generate. And since such limited-access, divided superhighways offered nonstop long-distance travel at high speeds, it seemed only fair that those who opted to use these superior forms of highway pay for them directly. When the first of these super-highways—the Pennsylvania Turnpike—opened for business in 1940, it proved wildly popular and was seen as the wave of the future. Other state highway departments in the Northeast and Midwest planned similar turnpikes, which got under way after World War II was over. Thus, by the time Congress authorized creation of the Interstate highway system in 1956, most of the Northeast and portions of the Midwest already had their portions in place or under construction as toll roads. Because of lower population and traffic in the South and West, however, Congress authorized new federal taxes on gasoline and diesel to pay for building the rest of the system, instead of tolls.
In recent decades, toll-financed projects have proliferated, especially in urban areas in fast-growing portions of California, Florida, Texas and Virginia. Additional highway capacity was needed, but the costs were higher than could be met by the limited amounts of funding available from fuel taxes. So a new generation has come of age using toll roads and/or toll lanes in Austin, Chicago,Houston, Dallas, Miami, Orange County (CA), Orlando, San Diego, Tampa, etc.
Could per-mile tolling become the primary highway funding source to replace fuel taxes? Highway users currently are not convinced that this would be in their interest. This policy brief explores the concerns of highway users and seeks to develop approaches that would be genuinely in the interest of those users.
About Reason Foundation
“Reason Foundation advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law. Reason Foundation produces respected public policy research on a variety of issues and publishes the critically-acclaimed Reason magazine. Together, our top-tier think tank and political and cultural magazine reach a diverse, influential audience, advancing the values of choice, individual freedom and limited government.”