By Robert Poole
Editor’s note: Robert Poole is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
The nation’s interstate highways are the trucking industry’s most important infrastructure – but they are aging and inadequate for 21st-century trucking. The trucking industry continues to call for a large increase in diesel taxes, but that approach will not fix the problem. A better approach would be the long-term financing of a second-generation interstate system based on a new approach to electronic tolling.
In December 2018, the Transportation Research Board published a 650-page report by an expert committee that estimated that rebuilding and widening the interstates would require at least $57 billion a year for the next 20 years. They suggested a new version of the original 1956 interstate legislation, with 90 percent federal funding based on a huge increase in federal fuel taxes. To generate the $57 billion per year would require a 360 percent increase in those taxes.
MANY HANDS OUT
That tax increase is highly unlikely, but if by some miracle it were enacted, most of it would not go toward interstate reconstruction. That’s because there are now over 100 separate federal programs that get funding from the Highway Trust Fund, including sidewalks, bikeways and mass transit. Every one of those constituents would lobby hard for a share of the revenues from any federal fuel tax increase. Also, much of any increase would be needed to offset the projected decline in fuel tax revenues over the next 20 years due to increased vehicle fuel economy and the growth of electric vehicles.
Moreover, the $57 billion per year would only be enough to rebuild and widen existing interstates. It won’t replace the 100 bottleneck interchanges, which are largely responsible for $74 billion per year in congestion costs to trucking alone. Nor would it cover adding dedicated truck lanes for the interstates with the largest projected volume of truck traffic.
The experts’ report called for interstate reconstruction to be funded annually by Congress – i.e., pay as you go. But the need for rebuilding and widening highways is so urgent that it makes better sense to use long-term financing to issue revenue bonds to raise the construction cost up front and get key corridors rebuilt now, rather than in 10 or 20 years. This requires a bondable revenue stream, and the most sustainable one would be per-mile charges for each category of vehicle.
Yes, in principle that means tolls. But given the trucking industry’s long-standing problems with 20th-century tolling, what’s needed is a new set of customer-friendly tolling policies, enforced by federal and state law, that are fair to truckers. Here is a suggested set of six requirements, from a new Reason Foundation policy study:
- Tolls would be collected electronically and charged per mile traveled. This would be a transition from per-gallon to per-mile and would capture the road use by electric vehicles.
- Tolls would be charged instead of fuel taxes on each rebuilt corridor. This would prevent double taxation.
- Toll revenues could be used only for the capital and operating costs of a state’s interstates. This would prevent tolled corridors from becoming cash cows.
- Tolls could be charged only after a corridor is rebuilt and widened. That means users would pay only for better value.
- Tolls would be required to apply to all vehicles using the rebuilt corridor. This would eliminate discrimination against trucks.
- For each category of vehicle, the same toll rate would apply to in-state and out-of-state customers. This would eliminate discrimination against out-of-staters.
The idea is to create a genuine value proposition for all toll-paying customers, including truckers – one that transforms the way traditional 20th-century toll roads have operated.
Another element of these modernized 21st-century interstates should be a full array of services offered at interstate “rest areas.” Trucking in particular needs a much greater volume of safe overnight parking spaces – and what better place to expand than right alongside the interstate? Trucks need electrical hookups to run heat or air conditioning overnight. This would not only allow them to spend less on diesel fuel, but would also cut emissions from their vehicles.
Service plazas are the obvious place to locate electric vehicle-recharging facilities. Existing truck-stop companies are well-positioned to bid for contracts to operate these new service plazas. They could also provide an array of shops and restaurants so that drivers have something to do while their electric truck is taking 30 or 45 minutes to be recharged.
Dedicated truck lanes (DTLs) should also be added to long-distance interstates with the heaviest truck traffic. DTLs would permit longer combination vehicles to operate safely in many more states. And DTLs would facilitate truck platooning, by keeping platoons separated from motorists attempting to dart between trucks, averting many accidents.
The Reason study has proposed testing the idea of toll-financed interstate replacement. In the 2020 highway bill, Congress could offer to exempt any state from the 1956 federal bans on tolling and commercial services if – and only if – it agreed to the six conditions noted above to protect toll-payers. This would rein in states now trying to charge tolls only to trucks or to give huge discounts to in-state residents.
Instead of fighting 20th-century tolling, the trucking industry should start fighting for a new set of customer-friendly 21st-century tolling policies that could modernize interstates and rest areas.
Editor’s note: Robert Poole is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation and author of the book “Rethinking America’s Highways.”
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