September 24, 2013

Our View: Tolls needed to keep up with crumbling highways

The gas tax is no longer adequate to maintain the roads we have. Per-mile tolls make sense.

Much of the nation's 46,000-mile interstate highway system is at or past its 50-year design life and in need of maintenance. In many cases, the areas served by the interstate system have grown to the point of stifling traffic congestion and are in need of additional lanes.

click image to enlarge

Changing federal law to allow per-mile tolls on state-operated stretches of interstate, like Interstate 295, above, would fund much-needed repairs by charging the people who actually use the roads.

2013 File Photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The funding mechanism for highway reconstruction -- the gas tax -- has not kept up with inflation, rising costs and the ever-improving gas mileage of newer vehicles. As a result, the gap between what is needed to pay for construction and what is actually being collected is steadily growing.

One answer comes from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that earlier this month released a study in support of per-mile tolls.

The study found that interstate highway reconstruction and lane-widening projects estimated to cost $983 billion could be financed with a system averaging 3.5 cents a mile for cars and 14 cents a mile for trucks. Each state could adjust these figures to meet regional needs, and the money earned would stay where it is paid, dedicated to the roads on which the toll was collected.

Federal law prohibits tolls on existing interstates, but Congress could change that as early as 2014.

Lawmakers should listen. New tolls, albeit a tough sell politically in many states used to freeways, would fund much-needed road repairs by charging the people who actually use the roads.

The fees would be made more fair by new technology that allows charges on a per-mile basis -- through the universal electronic tolling system expected to be in place by the end of 2016 -- ending the need for inefficient and sometimes dangerous tollbooths.

Per-mile tolls would solve a lot of problems in Maine, where a short trip near a tollbooth can cost a lot more than a long trip that avoids one. The per-mile fees would also render moot the strategy of driving around toll booths to avoid paying.

As a way to fund road repair, tolls are already used successfully here, on the turnpike, whose tolls were grandfathered when the highway system was created. The Maine Turnpike Authority completes maintenance and upgrades without taxpayer dollars. With a change in federal law, that same formula could be used when upgrades are needed on the state-operated stretches of interstate: Interstate 295 and Interstate 95 north of Augusta.

That may be preferable to relying on taxpayer supported general obligation bonds, especially when Maine's infrastructure needs are so plenty. In 2010, the Maine DOT identified $6.3 billion in transportation infrastructure needs, with only $3.2 billion available under the current funding structure, according to the Maine Better Transportation Association.

Maine, and other states in much the same predicament, are going to need a better funding mechanism. Bonding goes only so far, and it's unlikely that federal stimulus funds will be available the next time a major reconstruction is necessary.

 

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