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Tolling Interstates Is a Bad Idea

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(Editor’s Note: This column is in response to Bob Poole’s column in our September 4, 2014 edition found here.) People who choose to spend their money on dining out do so by choice and for convenience – it’s a key reason people visit restaurants. They expect value, a pleasant experience and a fair pricing system in which they only pay once for what they ordered. The same is true of interstate highway users. They want to drive a reliable, well-maintained road network which is supported with their tax dollars. What they don’t want is to be unfairly charged, which is precisely want the pro-tolling lobby wants. That is why a recent Rasmussen Reports survey found that two-thirds of Americans oppose a White House plan to broadly expand states’ ability to toll existing interstates.

The pro-tolling lobby was silent about this independent poll conducted by a neutral, national polling organization. However, not surprisingly, they have been gushing about recent results from polls they commissioned that supposedly show Americans want tolls on their currently un-tolled interstates. A pro-toll think tank’s Sept. 4 guest column (here) touts two public opinion surveys, one that it sponsored itself. These conflicting results clearly show that over-simplified surveys on complex issues is an insufficient method for crafting public policy.

A more reliable approach is evaluating what happens in the real world when proposals to toll existing interstates are considered. By that measure, the public has consistently and vehemently opposed this flawed transportation funding idea. In Virginia, citizens and lawmakers alike recently joined to prevent tolls on I95. In North Carolina, the public was so vocally opposed to interstate tolling after learning about all the negative impacts it would have on drivers, businesses, and communities, that lawmakers put a legislative prohibition on efforts to toll a stretch of I-95 within its borders in 2012.

In fact, no state has successfully tolled an existing interstate in the 16 years since the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program came into being in 1998. Similarly, there has been a growing disenchantment with toll roads in places like Texas, which has extensive experience with the funding mechanism. In fact, the previously pro-toll Texas Republican Party recently removed support for tolling from its official platform, a striking position shift.

These state-level experiences show that the people who understand tolling and have gained a thorough appreciation of its negative consequences have turned their backs on the idea. The rejection of tolls by these well-educated citizens and lawmakers is the most appropriate measurement of the public’s appetite for tolling existing interstates, not random polls of people without any knowledge of the issue.

Mandating tolls on existing interstate lanes increases commuting costs for families on budgets. For some, this can mean having to work an extra hour every day just to pay the toll between home and work. For traveling families, interstate tolls mean less disposable income and less revenue for roadside businesses

and vacation destinations. The upshot in aggregate is slower economic growth and fewer jobs created.

Tolling existing interstates raises commercial shipping and freight expenses to bring goods to market, leading to higher prices at the register. Tolling previously toll-free roads also diverts highway traffic onto local roads, causing congestion that imperils public safety by delaying police, fire and rescue workers from responding to emergencies. These disrupted traffic patterns also hasten road deterioration, accelerating the need for repairs on those roads. That burdens governments with repair bills that eventually will be footed by local taxpayers.

Part of the beauty of the Interstate Highway System is the free mobility it provides to anyone with a motor vehicle. The American way of life is to have no restraints on our freedom to move, travel, and conduct business from state to state. Removing the longstanding federal restrictions on tolling existing interstates would threaten this freedom by laying down monetary roadblocks throughout the country.

We can all agree that finding a long-term, sustainable source of transportation revenue is critical. In states that have considered tolling existing interstates, the public is deeply aware that this is a bad deal for drivers and toxic to economic prosperity. It is highly wasteful, disrupts businesses, and hurts families. In the restaurant industry, we can’t serve customers food they don’t want and charge them several times in different ways for the same meal and expect to stay in business for long. The same logic should apply to taxpaying drivers throughout the country.

Rob Green is the Executive Director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) and a member of the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI).

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