Toll roads may be the route to go

If you mention “toll roads” to the typical Wisconsin motorist, chances are good the reply will include an unflattering reference to Illinois and its 286 miles of pay-as-you-go interstate highways.

In bringing up the subject of toll roads for Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos knew he ran the short-term risk of reminding people of $2 tolls on the Tri-State Tollway and traffic jams for anyone not armed with an I-Pass.

Over time, however, the topic deserves more than a visceral reaction to “FIBs” and their unofficial tax on Wisconsin drivers.

Wisconsin is hurtling toward a financial roadblock when it comes to constructing new roads and bridge and maintaining what’s already in place. The state transportation fund is facing a shortfall of $4 billion to $6 billion over the next decade as roads and bridges age – just as gasoline and other fuel taxes are failing to keep pace.

“We should at least ask the federal government if we could have the option to explore a tollway in parts of Wisconsin where we could generate money from out-of-state tourists, and do it in a way that would hopefully pay for our roads,” Vos told a luncheon this month in Madison. “I live in southeastern Wisconsin, where a lot of my constituents have an I-Pass. It’s easy to use, it’s convenient. So I’d like to have it at least be a part of the conversation.”

You would think Burlington Republican Vos had shot out the tires on someone’s Prius. Knowing toll roads aren’t popular, talk-show hosts blasted the idea and other state politicians ducked for cover.

Still, in a state that depends on its highway system for commerce, tourism and much more, the idea of allowing toll roads – even if limited to a few interstate corridors – shouldn’t be so casually dismissed.

Wisconsin agreed in the mid-1950s not to charge tolls on its portion of the interstate system in return for full federal funding of its construction. Two generations later, that deal is still in place, even if conditions have changed dramatically.

Today, Wisconsin has one of the highest state gasoline taxes in the nation. Its vehicle registration fees are middle of the 50-state pack, but that combination of revenue soon will not be enough to pay for maintenance and new construction.

Why? Fuel efficiency. Everyone should be happy that today’s cars are burning less gasoline; it’s good for the environment, national security and conservation of what is still a finite resource, even as technology unlocks more domestic oil deposits.

Some cars aren’t burning much gasoline at all. Hybrid vehicles and all-electric cars are here to stay and their numbers will multiply. That will mean fewer fuel tax revenues over time, even if alternative fuels reach a scale that begins to replace more conventional fuels. No matter what type of fuel or alternative system is powering vehicles, however, they will always contribute to highway wear-and-tear.

Toll roads may be a part of the answer. Tolls could help pay for so-called “hot lanes” planned for I-39/90 from Beloit to Madison, and eventually to the Wisconsin Dells. Advantages include avoiding higher state fuel taxes, not tapping the state’s general fund for transportation needs, negating the need to borrow and reducing dependence on federal aid at a time when Washington is broke. Tolls would allow construction projects to be planned and built faster. They’re also a form of “congestion pricing,” encouraging users to make more efficient route choices.

Tolls also export a fair share of road maintenance costs to users from other states, which is not without political appeal.

Of course, tolls have drawbacks: There’s the actual cost of collection, which would require booths, people and an RFID electronic transponder system similar to I-Pass. It might distort traffic patterns, especially if motorists go out of their way to bypass them. And they’re not popular. People don’t like to stop to pay tolls, and it would likely take a while for Wisconsin drivers to embrace an I-Pass system, even though it’s compatible with systems in about 15 other states.

Another solution is an annual “mileage fee” based on how far people drive, collected in some states when motorists renew their vehicle registrations. But that’s a different type of toll because it’s still a user fee.

Vos wasn’t expecting kudos when he raised the idea of toll roads and he certainly didn’t receive any. He at least deserves credit, however, for thinking now about Wisconsin’s looming highway fund crisis. Better now than before the car careens off a cliff.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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