As anyone who has driven on Interstate 84, I-91, and especially I-95 knows, our interstate highway system is rapidly deteriorating. And that’s true not just of interstates in Connecticut, but nationwide. Potholes, crumbling pavement, and weakening bridge supports need to be repaired sooner rather than later.
Since the creation of the system in 1956, interstate highway maintenance has been funded by a tax on motor fuels paid into the Highway Trust Fund. Congress sets the amount of the tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon. However, the tax is not indexed to inflation, and Congress has not raised it since 1993. Because fuel efficiency has increased substantially since then, and therefore gasoline consumption per mile traveled has decreased, tax revenues have fallen while the costs of highway maintenance have increased. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the fund will soon be bankrupt.
Some members of Congress recognize the need to restore our highways and are considering at least two methods of financing those repairs as they prepare to renew the current Surface Transportation Act, which expires Oct. 1. One is a straightforward increase in the motor fuel tax. That’s supported by the Alliance for a Toll-Free Interstate, an industry group whose members include the American Trucking Association, UPS, FedEx, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. The other is elimination of the current ban on new tolls on interstate highways, allowing states to use toll revenues for repair and maintenance.
The alliance opposes tolls because they would add to the cost of moving goods around the country. That seems obvious. However tolls, which are direct mileage-based use charges, would seem to be the fairest method for allocating highway maintenance costs. In its 2009 report, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, which the 109th Congress established, strongly recommended tolls as the most viable and sustainable long-term user pay option for funding the system.
The commission said that both academic research and real-world experience have validated tolls not only as a revenue source, but also as a mechanism for more efficient use of our transportation infrastructure, reducing environmental externalities and providing information to drivers. It’s true that there would have to be an initial investment in toll infrastructure, but that could be amortized over many years.
The alliance also claims that tolls impose hidden costs for restaurants, service stations, and other businesses that depend on interstate highway traffic. “People aren’t going to stop at a McDonald’s or a hotel if they have to get off the interstate and pay a toll, then pay a toll to get back on,” said Jay Perron, vice president of government affairs for the International Franchisee Association, which is part of the toll opposition.
In our experience, it’s usually the case that the toll from point A to point C is the same, regardless of whether the traveler proceeds straight through without stopping or exits the highway at point B for a burger, then reenters to continue the journey to point C. And if there is a “penalty” for exiting and re-entering, it can be eliminated. Perron’s point seems inapt if not inept.
But whether one favors increasing the gasoline tax or removing the ban on new tolls, the goal is restoring and maintaining our highway infrastructure. Unfortunately, in the current anti-tax climate it is unlikely that Congress will increase the gasoline tax, even with the support of business interests. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is the co-chairman of the Building America’s Future Educational Fund, a bipartisan group that focuses on transportation issues. He recently said about the toll versus tax debate: “If Congress is not going to sufficiently fund transportation, and there is no appetite to increase the gas tax, we have to have the ability to add tolls.”
The future of our transportation infrastructure may depend on it.