Tolls don't address our long-term infrastructure needs

The U.S. Tolling Coalition has called on Congress to give states more flexibility to install tolls on Interstate highways as a way to raise revenues for highway improvement projects.

tolls-2-a.jpgNow it’s not surprising the U.S. Tolling Coalition is in favor of making it easier to install tolls, after all, the organization supports tolling as a way around Washington gridlock.

Along I-95 alone, Virginia has been given approval to place tolls. Rhode Island has asked for permission to toll 95 in that state and each year the idea of tolling 95 in Connecticut gains ground. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Alabama, and North Carolina are among the other states that have either started, or are looking to toll their highways.

According to Patrick Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Assn. and co-chairman of the U.S. Tolling Coalition, “17% of our interstates and one-quarter of our nation’s bridges are structurally deficient. With Congress struggling to find the money to meet basic maintenance needs, allowing more tolling will stretch dollars, jump-start construction projects and create new jobs.”

All valid points that I cannot argue against. But this solution misses one very large point that we should be fighting for above anything else: this is not a long-term solution.

While adding tolls is a relatively quick fix with great financial payoff, it does nothing to address the fundamental problem we have as a society – we do not have a viable funding mechanism and implementation program for road improvement projects.

According to the Coalition, “tolls are gaining public acceptance as motorists see the benefits of electronic collection systems, as well as the negative impacts of the lost buying power of fuel tax revenues.”

Tolls are, of course, more acceptable today than they were years ago, primarily due to the electronic collection methods. Generally speaking, we as a society are more willing to spend money if there is no physical money changing hands. You need look no further than our dependence on credit to see that lesson. With electronic toll collection, who really thinks about how expensive that toll you just passed through was? You don’t, because it was just a paper transaction.

As Congress continues to debate how to fund a long-term highway reauthorization bill, states are left to their own devices to pay for projects and make needed repairs. Republicans and Democrats are quite far apart in how much money is needed for the bill, and with the current extension in place until the end of March 2012, little if no progress is being made.

And based on the contentious nature of this bill, which originally expired in 2009, there is likely little to no chance that come March – just eight months before a presidential election – members of either party are going to come together on a bill, let alone a new funding mechanism for a bill. This means another extension and more bad news for states.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail in March, Bronwyn Guthrie, vice-president of global process services for IBM Canada, talks about how society is moving towards a user-pay based system for infrastructure.

(To see the whole interview, click here)

In fact, there are many that support a mileage-based tax instead of our current fuel tax system. The reality is, we just have to come up with a solution. It may be a combination of tolls, mileage-based, and fuel taxes. It may be one. It may be two. But the solution needs to be comprehensive and address long-term needs, not the short-term fixes we’re seeing pushed today.

So the only recourse is a short-term fix – tolls.

When I was in college, nearly 20 years ago, I had a journalism class assignment where I looked at the rate of spending on school expansion in a particular town over a 20-year period. What I learned was that the town faced a school capacity shortage at the beginning of that period. So it did what it had to do, it expanded schools, and expanded schools, and expanded schools. Nine expansions in all over that time period. And each time another expansion discussion came up, the idea of building a new school was raised. And each time, the town took the short-term approach to the problem and expanded rather than biting the bullet and building the new school that would have solved the capacity issues once and for all for many years to come.

When that 20 years had passed, what had the town gained through this exercise? Well, it had nine newly expanded schools; had spent more than $100 million on the expansion projects; financed that through bonds over a longer period of time; and in the end spent more than twice what it would have if it had just built that new school initially. And there was still a capacity shortage.

The lesson: the short-term fix almost always costs more in the long run. While tolls may help to alleviate problems states face today, they do nothing to address the long-term viability of infrastructure in this country, let alone the fact that users of those roads will be paying twice – through tolls and fuel taxes.

To solve the problem correctly, and in the most cost-efficient manner possible, we need a complete overhaul of the system.

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