Like many states, Wisconsin is facing the serious challenge of finding long-term, sustainable funding for transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, the ongoing debate in Madison appears to have taken a detour away from serious solutions.
Some legislators have suggested that tollways are the answer to generating much needed transportation revenue. To be sure, tolls may be an appropriate means to fund new, narrowly tailored transportation projects under specific circumstances.
However, none of these instances involve placing tolls on existing, currently non-tolled federal interstate lanes. The consequences of this are significant and far outweigh any perceived benefits.
Put in the simplest of terms, tolls on existing federal interstate lanes is double taxation. The claim that Wisconsin taxpayers using the interstates are not paying for those roads denies a basic fact. Those who drive on Wisconsin's federal interstates have paid for those roads at the gas pump through the federal gas tax. By placing a toll on these roads, Wisconsin would be forcing users to pay two taxes for use of a single road: a gas tax and a toll tax. People are paying for what they use, and they should not have to pay twice.
Even if you are willing to ignore this philosophical roadblock, tolls remain the least efficient and least effective way to generate revenue for roads. Consider that even with advances in electronic tolling, the cost of operating and maintaining toll facilities can consume as much as 20% of the money generated, according to a Washington State Department of Transportation study. This inefficiency comes into sharp focus when contrasted with the cost of administering the gas tax (1% of revenue generated) or the federal income tax (0.4% of revenue generated).
The impact on localities is also a red flag as toll facilities divert interstate traffic onto secondary and local roads that were not constructed to handle such volume. This speeds up deterioration of these roads, increasing the cost of maintenance for roads that will not benefit from toll revenue.
Traffic diversion hurts the economy by starving businesses such as truck stops, gas stations and restaurants that rely on interstate users to survive. Additionally, traffic diversion increases costs of shipping goods — losses that must be absorbed by manufacturers and retailers and may be passed along to consumers.
Wisconsin is not the first state to consider tolls on existing interstates. Last year, Virginia and North Carolina had approval from the federal government to move forward with tolls on I-95 in their states. These states wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money seeking permission from the federal government and studying the use of tolls on existing interstates.
Ultimately, overwhelming public opposition from citizens and legislators, coupled with studies that clearly demonstrated the proposals' negative impacts, forced the governors of both states to abandon the projects.
Wisconsin is facing a significant challenge with funding transportation infrastructure, as are many other states. A reasonable, efficient solution will require creativity and innovation from legislators. But tolling existing interstate lanes is too costly, too harmful to businesses and consumers and too philosophically objectionable to be the right path forward. The Wisconsin Legislature needs to steer the dialogue back toward viable solutions and ensure that Wisconsin interstates remain toll-free.
Hayes Framme is spokesman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, a coalition of businesses, organizations and individuals united in the belief that a viable, sustainable solution to America's transportation funding needs must not include new tolls on existing interstates.