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Advocates and Opponents Struggle Over Toll Roads

While tolling will not fill the Highway Trust Fund gap, it can finance improvements for specific interstate highways that would otherwise be funded by a sustainable trust fund, not one approaching insolvency. Why not allow states the option to toll?
April 7, 2014, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Lawmakers and some business groups are pushing to lift the ban on new tolls along existing Interstate highways, a move that would provide additional revenue for road maintenance and repair," writes Ron Nixon. "The opponents, under an umbrella group called the Alliance for a Toll-Free Interstate, include the American Trucking Associations" and many of America's most successful and well-known companies that depend on trucking to move their goods across the country.

"Congress banned tolls on Interstate highways in 1956 when it created the national system under President Dwight D. Eisenhower," writes Nixon, and the revenue mechanism they selected was the federal gas tax. But what happens when they don't increase the gas tax to keep up with expenditures, as is the current case where it hasn't been increased for over two decades?

The pro-toll effort has the support of many state and local transportation officials. They argue that local officials, who can raise their own fuel and sales taxes, cannot come up with the trillions of dollars needed to repair, or in some cases rebuild, sections of the federal Interstate System.

This is not a new issue. In a post last August, we noted that "three states have been exempted from the interstate tolling ban since 1998: I-95 in Va. and N.C, and I-70 in Mo. Only North Carolina appears to be moving forward."

Nixon updates us on the latter. "Last year, the North Carolina House voted unanimously to ban new tolls on any existing Interstate highway, which ended the state’s plan to add tolls on the parts of Interstate 95 that run through eight counties in the state. Gov. Pat McCrory also opposed the tolls."

To their credit, Hayes Framme, a spokesman for the alliance, said his group had "urged Congress to increase the gasoline tax", a view captured by Keith Laing of The Hill in "Congress faces gas tax dilemma" on March 27.

The federal gas tax and interstate highway tolls are both legitimate user fees, as are the still largely theoretical vehicle miles traveled fees. With Congress and the president looking at corporate taxes, an unsustainable, non-user mechanism, i.e a subsidy, to fill the transportation funding gap, does it really make sense to battle between which is the best user fee to use for transportation?

Looking at the aforementioned cases of North Carolina, Virginia, and Missouri, even if a state gets permission to apply such a toll, it may never happen.

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Published on Thursday, April 3, 2014 in The New York Times - U.S.
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