OAKLAND, Calif. — There are good reasons for financing roads through tolls instead of federal fuel taxes, but there is no case for the federal government to collect such tolls.
This just adds to the overall cost and places planning and management decisions — regarding expansion, maintenance and replacement — in the hands of remote federal bureaucrats with little or no first-hand knowledge of — or interest in — local needs and conditions.
A better way would be to get the federal government out of the road business altogether. Then, road users could pay directly for roads and bridges using an efficient electronic system similar to E-Z Pass. There would be no need for federal involvement.
The government’s record in this area is not good. And its priorities are often politicized.
In northern Virginia, for example, just outside Washington, D.C., car drivers on the Dulles Toll Road are paying an average of 460 percent more in tolls than they previously were paying, to help finance a rapid transit rail connection to the airport. This illustrates the federal government’s obsession with resurrecting 19th-century rail systems, to the detriment of road users.
There is no reason for continuing the federal government’s financing of road construction, a policy introduced in 1956 to finance the Interstate Highway System.
The idea, which is still valid, is that road users should pay for the roads. The legislation authorizing the Interstate Highway System required it — designating the federal fuel taxes we continue to pay to finance it. But that legislation also mandated that the tax would end when the highway system was completed. For all practical purposes the system was completed 20 years ago, so it’s long past time to devolve responsibility for highway financing back to the states.
The use of electronic tolling to finance roads involves more than just levying tolls. Whatever system is selected needs to enable payment for all roads, in all states, at prices that can vary from road to road to meet different circumstances, with security to assure the privacy of road users, and at low administrative and collection costs.
The development of such systems is best left to interested states, probably working with commercial firms.
Successful systems could be copied; unsuccessful systems abandoned. Oregon, for example, is already engaged in such development. It is impossible to envision the federal government, which cannot even update its air-traffic control system, speedily developing a successful electronic road payment system or abandoning an unsuccessful one.
Much of what we spend today on roads is wasted because of a host of federal regulations. Davis-Bacon Act rules alone can increase road costs by as much as a third or more by forcing contractors to use highly paid union labor. Having both federal and state governments administer road projects adds even more to the costs.
The states are more than capable of taking over, and — faced with the endless political riffs in Washington — many are making plans.
Ken Orski, editor of Innovation NewsBriefs, reports that Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming are all increasing state fuel taxes. If they could assume full responsibility, new toll options could be considered.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., calls the states “laboratories for fiscal experimentation.” So let them experiment.
Instead of introducing new electronic methods for charging road users, the federal government should step aside, phase out federal fuel taxes, and allow the states to develop new road pricing systems consistent with the principle that those who use the roads should pay for them.
Gabriel Roth is a research fellow with The Independent Institute in Oakland, California (www.independent.org)and editor of the book, “Street Smart: Competition, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of Roads.” Readers may write him at Independent Institute, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, California, 94621.