Transportation Report: Create fair highway-funding formula; do not institute tolls as a double tax

Maintaining and improving our nation’s vast surface transportation network has become nearly as daunting as negotiating the gridlocked roads of many American cities at rush hour. Communities across Texas and throughout America have fast-growing populations, but face crumbling and overstressed highways and consistent funding shortfalls. Clearly, something needs to change, but we should not sacrifice the quality of our roads — nor fairness to American taxpayers.

As we work to meet our transportation needs, we must think broadly and avoid Band-Aid solutions that will ultimately exacerbate the problem.

Some believe tolling existing highway infrastructure will alleviate these challenges. But tolling roads that have already been built and paid for with tax dollars amounts to nothing more than double taxation for the same asset; this is a practice that is fundamentally unfair. Consequently, I oppose any effort to place tolls on existing interstate highways.

Double taxation is not the only concern. Overemphasis on tolling has serious implications for community safety and local infrastructure. Studies show that motorists will change their driving patterns to bypass the tolls. This will redirect traffic from our highways to remaining free roads, and, in turn, congest our local streets, compromise neighborhood safety, and overburden small-capacity infrastructure.

Furthermore, tolls on existing interstates will divert truck traffic to other roads. A recent study predicted that a 25-cent-per-mile toll on an interstate highway would cause nearly half the trucks to divert to other routes. Many of the communities that would be impacted are not equipped to handle heavy commercial traffic, and the safety of local drivers could be put at risk by the increased presence of trucks on small roads.

I recently introduced legislation to prevent tolling of existing free federal highways, bridges, or tunnels built with federal funding, so that taxpayers are not taxed to use a road for which they’ve already paid. I’m for more highways and even tolls, when proposed the right way. The legislation does not prohibit tolls on new construction. If local communities and states want to cooperatively construct a toll road, they should be able to do so. If a state or community wants to expand its highways and toll for building new lanes, it can choose that alternative. In these situations, the taxpayers know exactly what they are getting. Many times a vote is required to approve these projects, but in any case, the taxpayers can hold the relevant officials accountable.

The debate on tolling illuminates the broader need to reform the federal highway program. Its antiquated funding formula — which has turned Texas, Florida, Arizona and others into donor states — is no longer serving the best interests of each state and its motorists. The inequity is compounded by the fact that many of the states donating the most gas-tax dollars also have some of the fastest-growing populations and the most congested cities, highways and freight routes. Our national transportation mission should evolve from constructing the federal-aid highway system to maintaining and improving infrastructure. This will help ensure that these penalized states don’t resort to Band-Aid solutions, such as tolling existing freeways.

In April, I introduced a bill that would permit states to opt out of this federal highway program and instead be rebated federal fuel taxes collected within their borders. Texas, for example, receives back 92 cents for every dollar sent to Washington. My bill would allow Texas and other states that are currently being shortchanged to finally see 100 percent of their gas-tax dollars from the highway account, and ensure that all of our funds could be used to improve transportation in Texas.

Washington shouldn’t take one state’s tax dollars and send them to other states. Likewise, American taxpayers shouldn’t be charged time and time again to drive on roads they already paid for with their hard-earned tax dollars.


Hutchison is the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.