Wisconsin ranks 38th in latest state highway systems report
By ROBERT W. POOLE JR. and MIKE NICHOLS | Feb. 13, 2018
The stars are aligned for Wisconsin to rebuild and modernize its Interstate highways using revenues from all-electronic tolling.
Bipartisan legislative support in Madison combined with the Trump administration’s promise to remove federal restrictions and match toll revenue with federal dollars suddenly make the idea more than plausible.
In fact, our research confirms that tolling is the only realistic, long-term solution to Wisconsin’s road funding dilemma.
Claims made last week by Wisconsin’s former transportation secretary, Mark Gottlieb, regarding operating costs are outdated and inaccurate. Concerns expressed by Gov. Scott Walker about imposing an effective tax increase on Wisconsin drivers, meanwhile, can be easily resolved through what’s known as Value-Added Tolling — the implementation of tolls only after highways have been upgraded or expanded.
We’ve long advocated this approach for numerous reasons:
- Raising gas taxes on everybody isn’t fair or logical. Fuel-efficient cars already burn less gas, and soon enough — when the price of electric vehicles plummets — many of us won’t be buying much gas at all. We need to wean ourselves off gas taxes, not increase them.
Concerns about double taxation — payment of gas taxes at the pump and tolls on the road — are understandable but easily addressed. Modern technology makes it easy to rebate fuel taxes paid by drivers on electronically tolled roads. This should satisfy concerns about double-charging users.
- Gottlieb contends that tolling is “wasteful and inefficient” and suggests 23 cents of every dollar collected in tolls will be spent on building and operating the system.
This is a familiar criticism. The American Trucking Associations claims that toll collection costs eat up 20 to 30 percent of toll revenue. That may have been true of all-cash 20th century tolling, but it is no longer true today. A 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service found average U.S. toll collection costs requiring 8 percent to 11 percent of toll revenue. But even those numbers are dominated by large, legacy toll roads that have only begun the transition from cash to electronic tolling.
A peer-reviewed Reason Foundation study by electronic tolling experts found that toll roads using only electronic toll collection and streamlined business rules have collection costs between 4 percent and 9 percent. Those researchers suggested that 5 percent of toll revenue was an achievable target once all-electronic tolling is fully phased in.
The fact is that we need more revenue to prevent widespread deterioration of our roads. Unless something is done, Wisconsin’s infrastructure will become an increasing drag on state economic growth. A policy study just released by the Reason Foundation ranked each state’s highway system by 11 different categories. Ranking the Best, Worst, Safest, and Most Expensive State Highway Systems — The 23rd Annual Highway Report gave Wisconsin an overall rank of 38th in highway performance and cost-effectiveness.
There are no viable solutions other than tolling.
Revenue from gas taxes will slowly disappear in the years to come. More debt is not the answer, either. Over 20 percent of all transportation fund revenues are already used for debt service rather than improving our roads. All told, we spend over a half-billion dollars per year just servicing transportation-related debt.
Let the people who use the roads pay for them. Tolling is fair, quick and convenient. Modern all-electronic tolling includes no toll plazas, no toll booths and no lines — just better roads that get us to our jobs and safely back home to our families.
We can’t grow and flourish on lousy roads. Electronic Interstate tolling is a logical, fair, modern solution to a problem — deteriorating highways — that must be solved for the good of all Wisconsinites.
Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation and author of Rebuilding and Modernizing Wisconsin's Interstates with Toll Financing. Mike Nichols is president of the Badger Institute.