Professional opinion divided but slightly favors tolling interstates 55% to 45

March 30, 2010

House transportation chair Jim Oberstar's throwaway line that the interstates should not be tolled because they are "already been built and paid for" RODS & Bridges has an online poll showing 46% agree with Oberstar (we rounded down). 35% think there should be no tolls on the interstates and 11% go along with his reasoning that the system is"paid in full" and presumably shouldn't generate tolls.

30% reject the notion the interstate system is "paid for" saying that with repairs and new capacity needed it will never be paid for.

25% say tolling is one of the few viable options for funding.

55% seem to favor tolling interstates.

ROADS & BRIDGES probably attracts a disproportionate number of highway officials and enthusiasts as readers, so its voters won't be a typical cross section of the public.

Oberstar's one-liner has an appealing populist ring to it. But it is soon understood to be illogical by those who think about it for a few moments.

The challenge for many existing interstates is how to finance the new work that needs to be done on them. Many of them are 30, 40 and 50 years old. Some need be be completely rebuilt, others to be rebuilt in parts. Some need widening, or improved interchanges.

The fact that there may be no debt on them - in the sense that they've been "paid for" - has no bearing on how needed improvements should be paid for now.

No doubt the state DOTs would be delighted if the Feds would pony up all the money they need to get the interstates up to standard. In the absence of that, the question is do they raise fuel taxes, registration fees and sales taxes, or consider tolls?

Tolls have the benefit that they are levied on those who will benefit from the improvements, and it is possible to borrow or raise private capital on a future toll revenue stream.

That may make tolling the most publicly acceptable way of financing the project.

Of course federal politicians like Oberstar naturally want to maximize their own leverage over these matters. Toll financing can be a way for states and local authorities to take control of their own destiny, free of federal patronage and federal largesse. No wonder officials like Oberstar don't like it. It may sideline them.

TOLLROADSnews 2010-03-30

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