New proposals to place tolls on the nation's interstate highways have stirred the debate on how to pay to rebuild the aging network.
Tolls of 3.5 cents per mile for cars and 14 cents per mile for trucks, rising every year to match inflation, could generate the $983 billion needed to reconstruct and expand the interstates, says Robert W. Poole Jr., director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Los Angeles.
By comparison, the cash toll for cars on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is now 10.9 cents per mile, 11.8 cents per mile on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Poole's study, released last month, focused on the need to rebuild the interstate system, much of which is near the end of its 50-year design life, even as the nation's Highway Trust Fund runs out of money.
Currently, putting tolls on free interstates is generally prohibited by federal law.
Pennsylvania ran afoul of that law when it tried to toll I-80 in 2007. The state planned to use toll revenue from its 311-mile section of I-80 to help pay for highways, bridges, and mass transit around the state.
When the federal Department of Transportation rejected the state's bid to toll I-80, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was left to make those statewide payments without the anticipated revenue from I-80 tolls. The result: burgeoning debt for the commission and annual toll hikes for users of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The interstate highways were built in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s with revenue raised by the federal gasoline tax.
But that tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, does not generate enough money to rebuild the interstates; it doesn't even produce enough money to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. The trust fund pays for maintenance and construction of highways, including the interstates, and for some public-transit projects.
Since 2008, Congress has kept the trust fund afloat by transferring $41 billion from the general fund. An additional $12.6 billion is scheduled to be transferred next year from the general fund.
Despite those transfers, the fund is expected to be $15 billion in the red by 2015.
So, Poole and other toll advocates argue, tolls levied by states on their interstate highways would be a user fee to maintain and expand the interstates without tapping the trust fund or raising gas taxes.
"Toll financing means needed projects, such as reconstruction and widening, can be done when they are needed, and paid for over several decades as highway users enjoy the benefits of the improved facilities," Poole says in his study.
With E-ZPass or a compatible technology available in all states, all-electronic tolling would make the tolls cheap to collect and would eliminate tollbooth delays, Poole says.
Some of the strongest opposition comes from major interstate users: truckers and motorists.
The American Trucking Associations calls the idea "a wildly unpopular concept."
"The public continues to see tolls as an intrusive and inefficient tax," said ATA president Bill Graves.
The auto club AAA says that, as a general principle, it "believes all roads should be toll-free."
A recent poll of Pennsylvania AAA members found 71 percent of the respondents opposed tolls on existing roads and bridges, while 47 percent opposed tolls on newly constructed bridges and highways, said Jenny Robinson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
However, AAA found that 62 percent of U.S. motorists believed the federal government should spend more money to improve roadways.
And those drivers said they found tolls (47 percent in favor) less objectionable than higher per-gallon federal gas taxes (only 27 percent in favor).
Many state transportation officials and policy groups argue that states need the ability to toll interstates, as federal aid is not keeping up with the needs.
"Every state should be able to access every tool as they see fit," said Joung Lee, associate director of finance for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
"All options need to be on the table," he said. "More flexibility would certainly be helpful for states."
Joining the call for Congress to give states the ability to toll interstates are groups such as the Bipartisan Policy Center, created by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell, and Building America's Future, founded by former Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City.
"If states and metropolitan regions are going to be asked to do more in transportation, and if more of the funding and investment responsibilities are to devolve to them, it is essential that . . . legislation remove the restrictions to their capacity to innovate," they and other transportation groups said in a letter last year to congressional leaders.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said that every funding option would be on the table when Congress begins to work out a new transportation-funding bill to replace the one that expires in September 2014.
He declined to say last week whether he supported tolls on interstates.