The federal interstate highway system is showing its age, and, faced with the cost of repairing all those bumps and cracks, some states want to ask motorists to pay tolls on roads that used to be free.
That’s the last thing a public that’s paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline wants to hear, and elected officials, from members of Congress to President Barack Obama, aren’t likely in an election year to propose that motorists pay higher gasoline taxes or tolls. But many transportation experts and officials agree that if Americans want to drive on good roads, they’re going to have to pay more for them, or do without.
Most of the 46,000-mile interstate system has been toll-free for its 56-year history. But pavement and bridges on the system’s oldest sections are reaching the ends of their life spans and need to be replaced. A 2009 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recommended an annual investment in U.S. highways and bridges of $166 billion.
"Highways are not designed to last forever," said Bob Poole, a Florida-based transportation policy expert and supporter of tolls at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research group in Washington. "There is a major need over the next two decades or so to rebuild and modernize the entire interstate system."
Since 2005, the federal Department of Transportation has given Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia approval to toll some of the nation’s busiest interstate highways for the purpose of improving them or rebuilding them. Transportation officials in these states say that given the enormous costs of such projects, they have few viable alternatives.
When the interstate system was created in 1956, a federal per-gallon gasoline tax was enacted to provide a stream of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. The federal government paid 90 percent of the construction costs, with the states making up the rest.
That model worked for decades, but no longer. Americans are driving less because of the economy and higher gas prices, and cars are getting better gas mileage. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t changed since 1993.
In recent years, the trust fund has required an annual infusion of general funds just to keep highway spending levels where they are. The Congressional Budget Office said in January that the trust fund might go bankrupt next year.
"We’re trying to run a 2012 transportation system on 1992 revenue," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It’s a bad mismatch."
But increasing the tax even to adjust for inflation is a tough sell. The cost of gasoline has come up as an issue in the current and past presidential elections, with Democrats and Republicans blaming high prices on whoever’s in the White House.
"At some point, lawmakers are going to have to find some backbone and say ’aye’ to new transportation revenues," Anderson said.
Stalled legislation in Congress to fund transportation projects for the next two to five years doesn’t even begin to fix the problem. No current bill, experts warn, adequately addresses the needs of an outdated and deteriorating national highway system.
"The proper cost of using high-quality roads is to pay what they cost," said Poole, who’s advised four presidents of both parties on transportation issues. "We haven’t been doing that for quite a while in this country."
Polls find that road improvements take a back seat to other public issues. A Pew Research Center study found in January that only 30 percent of Americans named transportation as a top policy priority.
"We have a huge contradiction," Anderson said. "They want better roads; they want mass transit. They want us to do something about congestion. But when we ask them about paying for it, it kind of falls apart."
Meanwhile, states are hardly in a position to pick up the tab.
Adding new lanes and rebuilding interchanges on nearly 200 miles of I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City, one of the oldest segments of interstate in the country, is a priority. But with a price tag of $2 billion to $4 billion, it’s also something Missouri can’t afford.
Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said that each penny of Missouri’s 17-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax brought in about $28 million.
"It takes a lot of pennies to get to $2 billion," Brendel said.
A tolling proposal hasn’t gotten far in the Missouri legislature, but Brendel said it had opened up debate on a variety of options for funding the I-70 project, including tolls, increased fees for vehicle registration and driver’s licenses, and a new sales tax.
At 10 cents to 15 cents a mile, the average driver could expect to pay $20 to $30 to cross the state under the proposal, according to the state DOT. Truckers would pay two to three times that.
It would cost most drivers about the same rate to travel the 182-mile portion of I-95 in North Carolina, part of a major north-south transportation corridor along the East Coast.
Expanding the four-lane road to six or eight lanes would cost $4.4 billion, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Kristine O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the agency, said existing revenue sources weren’t sufficient.
"If you took every dollar and spent it on I-95 and do nothing else, it would still take 60 years to make these improvements," she said. O’Connor calls the highway "an economic lifeline" for the state, and she said the tolling option would be the fastest way to fix it.
Virginia also is studying tolls on its stretch of I-95, and if both states proceed with them, drivers could see tolls from just outside Washington all the way to the South Carolina border. But O’Connor said drivers wouldn’t see toll plazas on the road tomorrow.
"What we’d like for people to know is there is still a lot of study to be done," O’Connor said. "We’re in the middle of a very thorough process."
Anderson, of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the organization generally opposed adding tolls to existing roads, but was open to roads that used toll revenues to pay for improvements.
"We would not support just a blanket request (for tolls) on I-95 absent any significant expansion or improvement," he said.
Some lawmakers want to put a stop to the tolls before they even start. Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina introduced a bill in the House of Representatives last month to block the state from tolling I-95, which passes through her district.
"North Carolina taxpayers should not have to bear further burdens after paying one of the highest gas taxes in the country," Ellmers said in a statement introducing the bill.
But tolling also has supporters in Congress. Sen. Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, sponsored an amendment to the Senate’s transportation bill that would have allowed more states to toll existing interstates.
But he withdrew the amendment when faced with a competing measure from Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison that would have barred states from adding tolls to existing roads. Neither amendment made it into the final bill the Senate approved. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., supports tolling on interstates only for new lanes, not for existing ones, according to a spokesman.
The trucking industry supports raising the federal gasoline tax, but it vehemently opposes placing tolls on existing highways because of the extra cost for truckers.
"We’re already paying substantial sums of money for our nation’s roads, and we don’t think we should be asked to pay again for those roads through tolls," said Todd Spencer, an executive vice president at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "No one is talking about doing away with the taxes on these roads that truckers would pay."
Darrin Roth, the director of highway operations at the American Trucking Associations, said that in North Carolina, as much as 25 percent of the truck traffic might try to avoid the tolls, hammering state highways that were never designed to handle the extra load.
"Where are those trucks and cars going to go?" he asked. "North Carolina will have to spend money to maintain and reconstruct those roads if they get enough traffic volume."
Poole said state transportation officials had undersold the benefits of tolling to the public and were outshouted by opponents.
"The trucking industry continues to characterize this as erecting toll booths on the interstates," he said. "You only put tolling in a corridor where there hasn’t been tolling when you can add significant value for the users."
Truckers would benefit from expanded roadways paid for by tolls through increased speed and more timely deliveries, Poole said. Some overpasses on I-95 in North Carolina are too low to allow taller trucks to pass, and rebuilding the road to accommodate them would remove a major impediment to commerce.
Brendel, of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said that long-haul trucks would pay a reduced toll to travel at night, and commuters who made frequent short trips could get discounts. North Carolina drivers who hop on and off the interstate might not have to pay tolls at all. But they’d still benefit from improved safety and quality of the road, and faster travel times.
Poole said states should have their own tools to fix their aging roads and bridges, and that tolling should be one of them.
"There’s only so much you can do patching potholes," he said.