With gas tax revenue on the decline, tolls could help cover the $26.2 billion cost of rebuilding and expanding Wisconsin's aging interstate highways, according to a new study released Sunday.That's the Reason Foundation working with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which has consistently advocated toll financing of highways.
The financing plan would add tolls to each highway as it is rebuilt, so that drivers don't pay until they are driving on a new road, study author Robert Poole said.
Poole says transportation finance questions are becoming more critical as more state freeways approach the end of their 50-year useful life. He pointed to a previous WPRI study that projected state transportation revenue would fall short of highway funding needs by $1 billion a year.No doubt, the rent seeking goes on. It's instructive, though, to see public officials, who in Wisconsin love to make invidious comparisons with Illinois and its toll roads, experience a mugging by reality.
"The whole country is running out of money" for transportation projects, Poole said in an interview.
In Wisconsin, transportation is funded largely by the state gas tax and vehicle fees. Gas tax revenue, however, has stagnated and is expected to drop in coming years, as rising gas costs and energy-efficient cars lead commuters to drive less and use less gas, Poole said.
Road builders and their allies have pressed for new sources of funding.
Poole has pushed the idea of express toll lanes, which his latest study says would cover 17% of the cost of rebuilding Milwaukee-area interstates over the next 30 years. Charging tolls on all lanes would raise 70% of the cost of rebuilding urban interstates and more than enough to rebuild rural interstates, he found.There's also going to be push-back from advocates of rail transportation and improvements in other elements of infrastructure, including water and sewer mains, and the pipelines and power grid, all of which may be a long way from a state of good repair.
Tolls also have evolved from the traditional network of booths where everyone has to stop and pay, Poole noted.
Electronic tolling systems like Illinois' I-Pass allow motorists with electronic transponders on their cars to pay tolls automatically without stopping. And while Illinois still has toll booths for those without an I-Pass, other states are using cameras to photograph license plates and send bills to drivers without electronic payment devices, he said.
Even with such technology, Poole concedes, "There will be some pushback" from toll opponents.
But he says that could be the price the state must pay "to have a 21st-century transportation system."
Therefore, the real infrastructure challenge for America -- repairing our existing crumbling infrastructure, transitioning to rail, transitioning to renewables, and upgrading the grid -- is on the order of $1.2 trillion per year, or about 8 percent of our $14.7 trillion GDP, give or take a few hundred billion. And that doesn’t even include some key steps in transition, like upgrading the thermal efficiency of the built environment, fundamental research to support an all-electric infrastructure, and natural gas conversions for transport trucks.The essay is incomplete, as it compares governmental expenditures on infrastructure among countries, which inadequately reflects private investments in railroads, pipelines, and the grid. But it is correct in calling out government expenditures as governed by rent-seeking, rather than anything close to careful implementation of the benefit principle.