The debate over this year's transportation reauthorization bill has taken an important turn, as legislators, the public and the media are giving serious thought to a White House proposal that would allow states to toll existing Interstate highways to pay for their reconstruction.
But a curious thing happened on the road to more flexible highway infrastructure funding.
After the White House released its four-year, $302-billion highway bill earlier this month, observers began attributing greater power and potential to tolling than even the most ardent tolling advocate would ever claim. Somehow, inaccurately, tolling to fund states' transportation budgets became tied up with the even more dire condition of the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF).
The HTF will fall into insolvency as early as August unless Congress moves to replenish it. With billions of dollars in urgent highway projects in jeopardy, and tens of thousands of jobs hanging in the balance, it needs serious attention.
But tolling is a different conversation. Using tolls to fund Interstate highway reconstruction would not add any new money to the Highway Trust Fund.
The tolling provision would stretch a state's federal dollars, allowing state and local authorities to assign their scarce federal dollars to other essential road projects. In that way, the Administration plan positions tolling as a central part of the solution to the long-term challenge of funding a trillion dollar plus Interstate reconstruction program. But it isn't a short-term fix for the HTF.
The difference matters because voters are rightly concerned about where their transportation dollars are spent, and where they come from.
When we're out on the road, trying to get from Point A to Point B in a reasonable period of time, we don't think too closely about how our roads are paid for. The important thing to remember is there are no free roads. The only question is how it's paid for:
• With tolling, users pay a direct users fee for the roads they use.
• We all benefit from non-tolled roads, where operating and maintenance costs are covered primarily by fuel taxes. But, the federal gas tax hasn't been increased in 20 years and that's one of the reasons why the federal Highway Trust Fund is on the verge of bankruptcy.
Either way, it takes a continual flow of dollars to keep a highway safe and reliable. As with any other kind of infrastructure, from power lines and water mains to your own furnace or roof, it's dangerous and costly to fall behind on repairs and upkeep.
So it's a good thing to have several options to fund our highways. There's a vast difference between a crowded commuter road in parts of Texas, Florida or California, a rural route in Wyoming or New Mexico, and a freight corridor in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. States need flexibility to choose the funding options that best meet their needs, with tolling as an essential, proven tool in the toolbox.
The Administration's transportation bill points to an important funding and financing tool that is proven and accepted in 35 states. Americans already make more than five billion trips per year on more than 5,000 miles of tolled roads and crossings. Drivers on a modern, all-electronic toll road get to pay their tolls at highway speed, rather than stopping at a toll booth and hunting for change.
And contrary to some of the misinformation that has circulated during the transportation reauthorization debate, toll collection on a mature, all-electronic tolling system is comparable to the cost of collecting the gas tax. It certainly helps no one to tout out-of-date figures that misstate actual costs.
America's highway network is incredibly diverse, and no single funding option is right for every circumstance. Tolls are not a silver bullet to solve the highway infrastructure funding crisis--any more than the gas tax will ever recover from the rise of more fuel-efficient vehicles.
That's why states need a mix of funding options, and the authority to use them as they see fit. Which explains the flurry of excitement that accompanied the Administration bill. After years of discussion and several Congressional commissions, momentum is finally building for a long-term, sustainable solution to the highway infrastructure crisis. And for the first time in more than half a century, the possibility of tolling the Interstates to pay for their reconstruction has entered the general political vernacular.
There will be many more twists and turns on the road to a final reauthorization bill, but this is a pivotal moment. It's important to understand what the Administration bill sets out to achieve, and what it does not.