Journal Times editorial: Toll roads aren't the answer for Wisconsin

Like potholes in the spring, the perennial proposal to raise revenue for state road construction by putting tollbooths on Wisconsin’s Interstate has again resurfaced.

Last week, the toll road arguments got an unlikely bipartisan push from state Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca,

D-Kenosha, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

At a Racine County legislative breakfast, Barca worried aloud about the decline in state gas tax revenue as vehicles become more energy-efficient. “This is a huge problem and I think counties and everyone around the state needs to carefully analyze this,” Barca said.

And Vos chimed in that without another source of revenue to support road construction the fuel tax could double. “As a Republican I don’t stand up saying ‘it’s great we’re going to raise fees,’” Vos said. “But I do believe people should pay for what they use.”

The lure of toll roads for Wisconsin is easy to understand — legislators and others think it would fund our highways using OPM — other people’s money. Why, just look at all those Illinois cars that glide up the Interstate on their way to Wisconsin’s northwoods every year. And they’re already used to toll roads so they won’t even notice.

Except they might. And they might decide to forego that trip to Eagle River if the trip takes longer because of toll stops. Or they might decide to skip off the Interstate and use secondary roads to avoid the tollbooths, a diversion that would put more traffic on those roads and boost congestion and repair costs for highways less able to handle the load. You can be sure that southeastern Wisconsin residents would use that option of toll avoidance as well.

However Vos and Barca would like to spin it, unintended consequences like secondary highway congestion, loss of tourism dollars and increased repair costs on other roads would be some of the results.

And no matter how you slice it, it would be another tax — and an inefficient one to boot. In a recent commentary, Hayes Framme of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, cited a State of Washington study that noted the cost of operating and maintaining toll facilities can consume as much as 20 percent of the money generated. That compares to about 1 percent for the cost of administering a gas tax.

Instead of a two-tax system, Wisconsin would be better off taking the current road and using the gas tax as the primary source for highway funding. Critics will say the state’s gas taxes are already among the highest in the country — and it’s true that Wisconsin ranks 14th among all states. But at 51.3 cents per gallon for federal and state gas taxes, Wisconsin is less than 2 cents per gallon morethan the national average of 49.5 cents.

We don’t need a new and inefficient tax like toll roads in southeastern Wisconsin.