The knives are already out on Capitol Hill for President Obama’s proposal to allow more tolls on interstate highways. “A non-starter,” said Democrat Peter DeFazio. “I absolutely will do everything I can to make certain that it doesn’t see the light of day,” said Republican John Mica. Those reactions come as no surprise: Everyone hates tolls. But until Obama’s congressional critics come up with a better way to fund the nation’s highways — many of which are in abysmal shape — the plan deserves approval.
Obama’s proposal, unveiled last month, wouldn’t mandate tolls anywhere. Rather, it would allow states that wish to boost highway spending to impose them. Current federal law bars states from charging tolls on most interstate highways; the Massachusetts Turnpike, which predates the law and was built without federal funds, is one of the exceptions. Toll revenues raised under Obama’s plan would help those states tackle repair projects endangered by the woes of the highway trust fund, which is expected to run dry in August.
The fund is in trouble because its traditional source, the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax, no longer generates enough to support the nation’s transportation needs. More fuel-efficient vehicles use less gas, meaning less tax revenue. And if electric cars — which use no gas at all — continue to catch on, the revenue stream for the highway fund will evaporate completely.
In the short term, a hike in the per-gallon tax would bolster the fund, but in the longer term Congress has to find different ways of paying for highways and transit, which also collects a share of gas tax receipts. A vehicle-mile tax that bases payments on the number of miles driven might make sense, aligning the amount motorists pay to the wear and tear they put on highways. Tolls would make it fairer, too; right now, everyone who buys gas pays for interstates, but tolls would ensure that only those who actually drive on the highways pay for them. Another key attraction of tolls is that they can be adjusted over the course of the day to manage traffic, a congestion-fighting tool specifically embraced in Obama’s plan.
Congress has no appetite for raising the gas tax in an election year, and a vehicle-mile tax could raise logistical and privacy concerns. But nothing’s perfect. Unless Congress is satisfied with the continued underinvestment in highways, bridges, and transit, it needs to approve Obama’s plan — or come up with a better one of its own.