As long as we're touching sacred cows--I refer to the previous post on the gas tax--let's talk about tolling on interstate highways. Is it time to revisit this question?
The era of the massive federal public works project is over. Gone are the days when it is politically feasible to propose $12 billion for a 41,000-mile interstate highway system, as President Dwight Eisenhower did in 1956. And yet it will cost $2 trillion to $3 trillion to reconstruct the current interstate highway system to today's design and safety standards, so says Reason Foundation Transportation Policy Director Robert Poole, a contributor to this blog.
Current law only allows states to toll new lanes on interstates. That makes no sense if the government isn't going to pony up the maintenance funds, says International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association CEO Pat Jones, also a contributor to this blog. "The federal government right now is an obstacle to that. If you're not going to solve the problem then get out of the way," he told me.
The argument against interstate tolling is best summed up by former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., who told a colleague in 2007, "They're taking existing capacity, built with federal highway trust funds, and charging you twice for it by putting a toll on it." The "public" in highways means it should be available to everyone...for free.
What are the best arguments for allowing tolling on interstate highways, given the current budget and political climate? What are the best arguments for continuing to bar tolling on existing lanes? Are there better ways to finance highway maintenance? Is there a middle ground to be struck on the issue? What could proponents of interstate tolling offer to opponents to make the notion acceptable?