New report suggests toll roads could aid highway funding

According to a recent report by the Heritage Foundation, toll roads could be used as an alternative to increasing the fuel tax, an option for funding new highway construction and upkeep of the transportation system. The only problem is, toll roads have been restricted since the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act.

In order for states to ease increasing traffic congestion and maintain highway upkeep, a steep increase in highway spending is needed. While the House Transportation Committee supports raising the gas tax by 50 percent, a conflict exists because the Bush administration has proposed no increase in the gasoline tax or the diesel fuel tax, which currently support the highway system. Although the administration proposed a $41.2 billion per year funding program, up 13 percent from the past six years, transportation committee leaders requested a drastic increase — $62.5 billion per year for road and railways.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Conditions and Performance report for 2002 estimated that at least $91 billion would be needed annually to maintain the current highway system. To make any improvements, $107 annually would be required.

“A decrease in spending will have a definite negative effect; on jobs, on safety and on traffic congestion,” said Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

Peter Samuel, author of the report and editor of Toll Roads Newsletter, said the use of toll roads to fund the highway system would be a logical compromise. Such an alternative, however, would require the repeal of the 1956 highway act. While tolls cannot be used on the interstate system, they can be used on federal tunnels and bridges.

“The government doesn’t put any restrictions on license fees or state gas taxes, but there is a restriction on the tolls,” Samuel said. “The restriction is a historical relic.”

In 1956 the restriction was approved because of the inconvenience stop-and-go traffic and toll lines would cause drivers. Another reason, Samuel said, is because the developers of the interstate system wanted the roads to be free. However, Samuel thinks the gas tax system is no longer enough to fund the highway system. The revenue from the gas tax could decrease in the near future due to new kinds of fuels and more efficient engines that use less fuel per mile.

According to the report, new technology has made the inconvenience of tollbooths a problem of the past. The use of a windshield-mounted transponder now allows toll collection by radio signal without requiring vehicles to stop. Over half the tolls in the United States are currently collected electronically, and automated tolling machines are replacing many personnel-operated tollbooths. Tolling might also be an easier form of raising revenue for the highway system. Tolling is generally less unpopular that rising taxes, and is seen as more fair because only the users pay.

“While the tolling system makes sense for highway funding, feasibility studies should be done to find the areas where toll roads would generate the most revenue, instead of placing them in areas where it might not generate the needed funds,” Samuel said.