WASHINGTON (AP) — With Congress unwilling to contemplate an increase in the federal gas tax, motorists are likely to be paying ever more tolls as the government searches for ways to repair and expand the nation’s highways.
Tolling is less efficient and sometimes can seem less fair than the main alternative, gasoline taxes. It can increase traffic on side roads as motorists seek to evade paying. Some tolling authorities — often quasi-governmental agencies operating outside the public eye — have been plagued by mismanagement. And some public-private partnerships to build toll roads have drowned in debt because of too-rosy revenue predictions.
Tolls are hardly a perfect solution. But to many states and communities, they’re the best option available.
“It’s very hard in this environment for states to add capacity without charging a toll because they can’t afford to do it,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank. “They’re barely able to maintain what they’ve got, and there is an urgent need for capacity.”
Some changes already are under way
In addition to the tolls allowed on Interstates in 15 states — mostly in the Northeast and Midwest but not including Nebraska or Iowa — the U.S. has agreed to pilot toll projects on Interstate 95 in Virginia and North Carolina and on Interstate 70 in Missouri.
A commission created by Congress to recommend ways to pay for upkeep of the nation’s transportation system predicted in 2009 that the U.S. will face nightmarish congestion unless it spends more. The commission estimated all levels of government were spending a cumulative $137 billion less each year than is necessary to maintain and expand the current system. Without action, there will be a $2 trillion-plus backlog by 2035, it said.
It’s been nearly two decades since Congress last increased the federal gas and diesel taxes that have historically paid for highways. Meanwhile, the cost of road and bridge construction has gone up and the purchasing power of fuel taxes has declined by more than a third. Revenue is also down because people have been driving less due to the uncertain economy and because cars are becoming more fuel-efficient.
Federal and state fuel tax revenues peaked in 2007 at $72.4 billion, then dropped to $68.6 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. Meanwhile, state toll collections rose from $4.9 billion in 2000 to $8.9 billion in 2010, and locally administered tolls rose from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $2.5 billion in 2009.
The trust fund that pays for federal highway programs is forecast to go broke sometime next year, though the House and Senate are trying to negotiate a bill to shore up the funding and overhaul transportation programs.
Tolling is the easiest near-term way to pay the bills, says Robert Atkinson, who was chairman of the financing commission. “If you could allow modest tolling on Interstates, you could raise a lot of money,” he said.
The 15 states that had turnpikes before the 1956 advent of the Interstate system have grandfathered permission to collect tolls on 2,900 miles of the 47,000-mile system. But federal restrictions prevent other states from placing tolls on federal-aid highways except in limited circumstances.
States want Congress to increase their ability to charge tolls and to allow them to use the money for a variety of transportation needs — not just upkeep of the roads where tolls are collected, said Eugene Conti, North Carolina’s transportation secretary, at a Senate hearing last month. What to do about tolling isn’t addressed in the highway bill now before Congress because of a standoff earlier this year between senators who favor and oppose easing tolling on Interstate highways.
One concern is that the Interstate system is aging, which means money must be found to repair and replace the roads.
“The roads are out there and we’ve paid off the mortgage, but that doesn’t mean the system is paid for. ... Now the roads are crumbling and we have to upgrade them,” said Patrick Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facilities.
Some relaxation of the toll ban is in the works. The Transportation Department has selected the three states — Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri — for pilot toll projects.
A $2 billion project now under way would add High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstate 495 in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.
Motorists who buy an E-ZPass that can be read electronically will be able use the lanes. Toll prices will fluctuate depending on traffic density. If toll lanes are crowded, prices will keep rising until enough motorists decide to remain in the slower lanes. The aim is to give motorists a way to travel quickly, but only if they are willing to pay for it — an idea that has stirred controversy. Cars with three or more passengers will be able to use the lanes without paying.