Like many of the issues at the forefront of the current economic debate, a decades-long crisis is brewing when it comes to funding America’s highways, bridges and tunnels. Our crumbling road infrastructure, intensified and illuminated by super storm Sandy, requires renewed attention and a new way of thinking to keep them safe and reliable. The bottom line: there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this growing and expensive problem.
That is why it comes as welcomed news that U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), incoming chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently said he’s open to every approachwhen it comes to funding, including “raising the gas tax, tying increased energy production to infrastructure funding, a VMT fee as well as expanded tolling.” As one of the options in the toolbox for financing our highways, tolling has the potential to play an important role in keeping America moving.
With highway congestion rising, gas tax revenues falling, and our legislators scrambling to meet a long list of urgent funding priorities, now is the time to think outside-the-box about all potential options to generate much needed revenue to fix our roads, bridges and tunnels. Consider this: America’s toll facilities operate 5,431 miles of highway in 35 states and territoriesthat produce more than $10 billion in annual toll revenue. Last year, toll roads and crossings recorded five billion trips, served nearly 40 million pre-paid account-holders across the country, and logged one-third as many highway deaths as the wider U.S. road network.
While the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in June of 2012 was a good beginning, more can and should be done. MAP-21 helped strengthen the foundation for public-private partnerships that are essential for long-term financing. With most of the Interstate highway system due for replacement or major upgrade, there is still a federal ban on tolling existing mileage on the Interstate system. With current funding for highway maintenance, improvement, and expansion short by billions of dollars per year, shouldn’t we have an open discussion about all options that make sense?
Despite the myths about tolling, the facts point to an effective and efficient path forward in improving our roads and keeping them safe. Tolling does not mean stopping and waiting: rather with all-electronic toll (AET) collection, it means go, go, go. A recent study by the Reason Foundation illustrates how toll collection in a mature AET system costs about the same as collecting the fuel tax.
As fiscal cliff negotiations swirl through the Beltway, the search is on for smart, practical public policy solutions. The intense competition in Washington for funding to help resolve complex policy issues in the past has created extensive problems today that continue to grow further out of control – and there’s no greater example of this “kick the can down the road” way of problem-solving than the critical transportation funding shortfall we’re facing today.
As the 112th Congress comes to a close, there is now a conversation happening across America about how to provide long-term, consistent funding to update our roads, bridges and tunnels. With no clear solution in the near-term, the 113th Congress will offer significant opportunities to explore more creative ways of tackling this challenge.
Jones, CEO and executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. (IBTTA).