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Interstate Tolling – Key to the Future

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Publisher’s note: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell supports setting up tolls between Virginia and North Carolina. There are discussions about tolling Interstate 81 in the Valley and for building new toll roads. This article by nationally recognized transportation expert, Bob Poole, helps put the need to establish tolls on our interstates into perspective.

The discussion over possible tolling of the Interstates has almost everyone singing the same tired song: “New capacity yes — existing capacity no.” But that position, repeated alike by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chair John Mica (R, FL), ignores by far the most important role that tolling could play in America’s highway infrastructure: reconstructing worn-out Interstates. I’m not playing word games here, so please bear with me while I explain.

As every highway engineer knows, highways wear out. Even with proper ongoing maintenance efforts, most major U.S. highways have a design life of about 50 years. At that point, the cost-effective thing to do is not yet another pavement overlay but rather complete reconstruction. And when you take on that big (and expensive) a project, it also makes sense to use 21st-century design and performance standards—such as designing for today’s heavier trucks, avoiding practices common in the 1950s such as left-lane exit ramps (which are now considered unsafe), etc. The result of a complete reconstruction project like this is a brand-new road. That brand new road will not come into existence unless the funds can be found to pay for it.

Begun in 1956, portions of the Interstate system are already more than 50 years old. And over the next several decades, most of it will reach that mark. To say that the Interstates “have already been paid for” via federal (and some state) fuel taxes is silly. Yes, the initial capital costs were paid for that way, and ongoing maintenance costs are being paid for that way. But there is no conceivable way that existing federal fuel tax rates could pay for the reconstruction of our 47,000 miles of Interstates, let alone add needed capacity in congested urban areas and on some inter-city routes. In an article in the March issue of Public Works Financing, tolling expert Ed Regan reports that the Interstate system cost $129 billion to complete over a period of about 30 years. Using samples of recent reconstruction projects, he develops a ballpark estimate for system-wide reconstruction of $1.3 to $2.5 trillion.

And that is just to reconstruct the existing lane-miles. That estimate does not include adding missing links between cities too small to matter when the original map was drawn up during the 1940s (such as between Las Vegas and Phoenix), or needed capacity additions in congested urban areas and on many long-haul routes (such as I-70 in the Midwest). The only study I’m aware of that sought to quantify a serious program of rebuilding and modernizing the Interstates carries a May 2007 date: “Future Options for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” It defined a 30-year program that would reconstruct the existing 47,000 centerline miles and add 15,000 new centerline miles (mostly by upgrading existing National Highway System routes), with total capacity rising from 212,000 lane-miles to 385,000 lane-miles. The cost of this program was estimated at $103 billion per year for 30 years—about $3 trillion.

That report, written in the SAFETEA-LU era of expanding federal highway spending, took a cautious approach to the potential of tolling and pricing, suggesting that 6,000 route-miles of high-volume truck routes and up to 8,000 route-miles of urban HOT lanes could be candidates for tolling. In the new era of fiscal constraints, I can see no alternative to using tolling and pricing for a much larger fraction of the system.

But serious debate on toll funding such a massive project will never get off the ground if we persist in mislabeling this as “tolling existing capacity.” If we don’t figure out how to pay for massive Interstate reconstruction, there will be no “existing capacity” to have debates over.

Instead of continuing with these silly rhetorical games, Congress could take just one modest step in this reauthorization to set in motion the process of creating a new 21st-century Interstate system. All they have to do is to remove the numerical limits in four tolling and pricing pilot programs enacted during the last three reauthorizations:

  • Value Pricing Pilot Program: expand to all 50 states rather than just the 15 “project partners”;
  • Express Lanes Demonstration Program: remove the limit of 15 projects;
  • Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Toll Pilot Program: remove the current limit of three projects.
  • Interstate System Construction Toll Pilot Program: remove the current limit of three projects.

To build a critical mass of support for this reform, it is vital to assure highway users that Interstate tolling will be a true user fee, and not (as Pennsylvania tried to do in proposing to toll I-80) a new tax on highway users, to bail out the entire state transportation program. The conditions placed on the use of toll revenues in the two Interstate toll pilot programs were carefully negotiated with highway user groups, which have accepted them as proper user fees. Those conditions should remain in place as the programs are expanded to all states.

(This article appeared in April’s issue of Surface Transportation Innovations, published by the Reason Foundation).

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