WASHINGTON — Driving onto an Interstate highway? Crossing a bridge on the way into work? Taking a tunnel under a river or bay? Get ready to pay.
With Congress unwilling to contemplate an increase in the federal gas tax, motorists are likely to be paying ever more tolls as the government searches for ways to repair and expand the nation’s congested highways.
Tolling is less efficient and sometimes can seem less fair than the main alternative, gasoline taxes. It can increase traffic on side roads as motorists seek to evade paying. Some tolling authorities — often quasi-governmental agencies operating outside the public eye — have been plagued by mismanagement. And some public-private partnerships to build toll roads have drowned in debt because of too-rosy revenue predictions.
Tolls are hardly a perfect solution. But to many states and communities, they’re the best option available.
“It’s very hard in this environment for states to add capacity without charging a toll because they can’t afford to do it,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank. “They’re barely able to maintain what they’ve got, and there is an urgent need for capacity.”
Some changes already are under way.
In addition to the tolls allowed on Interstates in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, the U.S. has agreed to pilot toll projects on Interstate 95 in Virginia and North Carolina and on Interstate 70 in Missouri.
A commission created by Congress to recommend ways to pay for upkeep of the nation’s transportation system predicted in 2009 that the U.S. will face nightmarish congestion unless it spends more. The commission estimated all levels of government were spending a cumulative $137 billion less each year than is necessary to maintain and expand the current system. Without action, there will be a $2 trillion-plus backlog by 2035, it said.
It’s been nearly two decades since Congress last increased the federal gas and diesel taxes that have historically paid for highways. Meanwhile, the cost of road and bridge construction has gone up and the purchasing power of fuel taxes has declined by more than a third. Revenue is also down because people have been driving less due to the uncertain economy and because cars are becoming more fuel-efficient.
Federal and state fuel tax revenues peaked in 2007 at $72.4 billion, then dropped to $68.6 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. Meanwhile, state toll collections rose from $4.9 billion in 2000 to $8.9 billion in 2010, and locally administered tolls rose from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $2.5 billion in 2009.
The trust fund that pays for federal highway programs is forecast to go broke sometime next year, though the House and Senate are trying to negotiate a bill to shore up the funding and overhaul transportation programs. It’s unclear whether they’ll reach a deal, but if they do, it’s likely to contain only a short-term financial fix. That means lawmakers will be back again, scratching for more.
Tolling is the easiest near-term way to pay the bills, says Robert Atkinson, who chaired the financing commission. “If you could allow modest tolling on Interstates, you could raise a lot of money,” he said.
Fifteen states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, that had turnpikes before the 1956 advent of the Interstate system have grandfathered permission to collect tolls on 2,900 miles of the 47,000-mile system. But federal restrictions prevent other states from placing tolls on federal-aid highways except in limited circumstances.
States want Congress to increase their ability to charge tolls and to allow them to use the money for a variety of transportation needs — not just upkeep of the roads where tolls are collected, said Eugene Conti, North Carolina’s transportation secretary, at a Senate hearing last month.
But states also have a history of slapping tolls on roads traveled by a large share of out-of-state motorists. When Pennsylvania applied to put tolls on Interstate 80, a route favored by truckers, the federal government rejected the plan partly because some of the money raised would have gone to support public transit in Philadelphia, even though the highway doesn’t touch the city’s metro area. In 2004, Chicago leased its Skyway, an eight-mile road and bridge, to a private toll operator for 99 years in exchange for $1.8 billion that was used to pay off city debt. The resulting toll increases fell heavily on Indiana commuters who use the road to get to jobs in Chicago.