Some conservative think tanks have peddled the notion that converting America’s freeways into toll roads would somehow be an innovative, free-market thing to do. This line of thought is causing otherwise solid, anti-tax Republicans to act like Democrats.
Take Virginia’s Robert F. McDonnell, the most promising leader the commonwealth has seen in years. The Republican governor announced Monday his intention to erect toll plazas on Interstate 95 at the border with North Carolina in an obvious attempt to soak out-of-state travelers and truckers as they make their way along the busy corridor. Mr. McDonnell’s own press release admits that the purpose is to “generate the revenue.” His announcement closely followed that of Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania Democrat, who intends to add “gateway” toll booths to all Keystone State entry points - including I-95. Mr. McDonnell is also eager to restart the foolhardy I-95 high-occupancy-toll-lane scheme devised by his liberal predecessor, former Gov. Tim Kaine, who now is chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The new tolling applications must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration, giving the Obama administration the final say on whether to undermine the interstate highway system’s greatest virtue: freedom to travel. The country has prospered and grown as goods have enjoyed unhindered passage on nearly all federal roads built after 1956. Departing from this path returns us to the days of the Articles of Confederation, when one state could impose duties on another state’s commerce without restriction. As soon as one starts, it’s an invitation for all the rest to get in on the action.
This trend is against the Founders’ original intent. “We may be assured by past experience that such a practice would be introduced by future contrivances,” James Madison warned in Federalist No. 42. He urged adoption of our Constitution so that merchandise could pass from one jurisdiction to another “without an augmentation of the tolls.”
The father of free-market economics, Adam Smith, shared the same concern. In his magisterial treatise “The Wealth of Nations,” he drew attention to the practical problems inherent with the “innovative” public-private partnerships that are all the rage with transportation bureaucrats today. “The tolls for the maintenance of a highroad cannot, with any safety, be made the property of a private person,” Smith said, describing in detail the history of abuse and neglect from various ways such tolls had been levied in England.
Unlike our forefathers, we have the ability to levy an excise tax on the transportation system’s primary fuel at the distributor level. This is not only efficient, it acts as a perfect user fee - those who use the roads cannot help but contribute to the highway fund. The current gas-tax system does not need to be replaced with absurdly expensive and fallible motorist-tracking technology fielded by an army of toll collectors (who are unionized in states like Pennsylvania), lawyers, marketing teams, lobbyists and billing agents. The problem isn’t that drivers aren’t paying enough; it’s that politicians steal what motorists pay to bankroll $5.3 billion boondoggles like the Dulles Metro extension, which forces drivers to subsidize rail users.
If Mr. McDonnell wants to strike the truly conservative path, he should follow Madison and Smith, not Kaine and Rendell. The Old Dominion governor should pull the plug on any transit project unable to fund itself and restore driver fees to their rightful purpose: improving and freeing all of the commonwealth’s highroads.