Not too long ago I was talking with a legislator about the toll industry. We were discussing how to finance the additional capacity his state needs to attract businesses and also the rising cost of maintaining infrastructure. I asked how long it would be before we saw another catastrophic bridge collapse. After a roundabout discussion he said, “It will be a cold day before I support any project that includes a user fee.”
This winter has been brutal. I grew up in a cold state and I am used to winter, but not this kind. Last week we had wind chills below 0°F (-17°C); today it is 70°F (21°C); and tomorrow another ice storm. I spoke with my brother-in-law in Pennsylvania and asked if he was seeing the same in the north. To my surprise, he said ‘no’. Potholes were last year; now entire sections of roadway are crumbling away. The freeze-thaw sequence is having a devastating effect on our roads. Maybe the ‘cold day’ has come for legislators to act.
However, states are struggling with three federally based problems. First, the absence of long-term highway trust fund legislation has wreaked havoc on transportation planning. Many northern states with short construction seasons are canceling project lettings because of a lack of certainty in available funds. It is simply impossible to effectively target scarce financial resources without knowing long-term funding levels.
Second, at current levels the gas tax is not enough to maintain the existing system, let alone improve it. At this year’s AASHTO legislative briefing, it was presented that typical developed countries spend 5-6% of their GDP on transportation. The USA is spending 1%.
Third is the federal role in highways. Building nice new roads and interchanges opens new land for development – and gets votes. Ongoing maintenance (heavy construction, pavement restoration) tends to be underfunded. There is broad recognition that a long-term bill and more money are needed to protect and maintain transportation investments. But how?
Raising gas tax is an option, but it’s always unpopular with politicians and the public. Since any increase has been deferred since 1993, an increase of at least US$0.70/gallon would be needed. Such a large hike would not only be tough on politicians who vote for it, but also on a recovering economy.
Managed lanes seem to be gaining favor as they work well to relieve traffic and are optional. However, managed-lane revenues seldom raise much money and none could support major programs.
Mileage-based user fees are a good option. The state of Oregon is developing an interesting pilot program with open technologies and various ways for drivers to declare how many miles they have driven. Oregon calculates that 1.6 cents per mile in user fees will raise the same money as a 30 cent gas tax.
Tolling still has a negative stigma but offers a solution to all three problems. Its self-sustaining infrastructures raise predictable streams of revenue, ensuring that the money is available to protect the investment and service the debt. However, federal restrictions and public sentiment are blocking implementation. With all-electronic tolling and nationwide interoperability, will we consider tolling on existing Interstates?
Hurry, it’s cold out here!
J J Eden, is the director of tolling at Aecom,
Illustration: Ian Parratt, the-caricatureartist.co.uk