Count on tax-averse libertarians to champion a user fee for the nation’s highways.
A recently released study by the libertarian Reason Foundation proposes tolling all 49,000 miles of the nation’s interstate highway system at 3.5 cents a mile for cars, 14 cents for trucks. The toll could be adjusted annually for inflation.
Pennsylvania has considered tolling Interstate 80 before — and this newspaper opposed it. But year after year, states are collecting lower gas-tax revenues, the result of more fuel-efficient vehicles, alternative-energy vehicles and fewer miles driven. And year after year of postponed repairs have placed the essential maintenance of the nation’s badly aging infrastructure out of reach of the available funds. Tolling the interstates — all interstates, not just I-80 — deserves consideration.
Consider the issues:
• An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were structurally deficient, and 20,808 fracture critical. Of those, nearly 8,000 were both, a situation experts say represents a red flag. Some of these bridges, like the I-23 bridge that collapsed in 2007 in Minnesota, are in the highway system.
• Pennsylvania hosts an outsized share of deficient bridges, but the transportation funding the state General Assembly passed in the 2013-14 budget won’t begin to cover them and maintain all the state roads, too. Last month the state Department of Transportation announced new weight restrictions on some 1,000 state and local bridges aimed at slowing their deterioration. Of those, 53 are in Monroe County.
• Roads are costly. The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association estimates that rebuilding the entire interstate system over the next half century will cost as much as $2.5 trillion.
Interstate tolls will place an additional financial burden on thousands of Monroe County residents, from commuters to truckers, and on the thousands of tourists, who, like other interstate drivers, already pay a toll to cross the Delaware Water Gap bridge. But Pennsylvania is scrounging for revenues to support its roads and highway system.
Implementing interstate tolls would require Congress to change federal law, and getting elected officials to make such an unpopular move — even one that does not “raise taxes” — hardly seems likely. But like it or not, the nation must properly support its interstate highway system somehow. The economy and our very freedom of movement depend on it. Taxes alone no longer cover the cost.
Given the high stakes — compromised public safety and inadequate funding — tolling the interstates offers Pennsylvania and other states a new funding source that is desperately needed.