Dave Reid

Toll Roads for Wisconsin!

By - Oct 19th, 2011 03:34 pm
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Traditionally, in Wisconsin toll roads are opposed by the right, because freeways are free, from the left because tolls are an attack on the middle class, and often by new urbanists, because freeways promote sprawl.

This urbanist feels it is time for us to stop referring to our Interstates as “freeways” as they have never been, and never will be free, and begin collecting tolls on them.  Now the new funds shouldn’t be used to build bigger and bigger roads, but to allow for users of the Interstate system to pay more of the direct and indirect costs associated with highways.

It is often claimed that the Interstates are 100 percent paid for by user fees and that these fees cover all of the costs, but this isn’t true.  In 2007, Subsidyscope estimated that only 51 percent of the funds set aside for highway construction and maintenance came from user fees.  One glaring example of this subsidy is the simple fact that the federal highway fund has been bailed out with general funds multiple times over the years.  Additionally indirect costs and externalities are also not accounted for, such as air pollution (and the resulting health effects), blight, and the cost of congestion.

Tolling roads in Wisconsin might be possible today, because of two key changes to the landscape.  First, the technology of open road tolling has enabled states across the US to reduce the congestion and environmental issues associated with toll roads by minimizing the need to stop, while allowing users to pay more of the full cost of the highway system.  Secondly, the political opposition to toll roads in Wisconsin has weakened.  During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign Governor Scott Walker, who had previously opposed all toll roads, expressed an openness to the creation of HOT lanes, which are essentially toll lanes.  Additionally, it was the right-wing leaning organization, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), that recently put out a report supporting new toll roads in Wisconsin.

It isn’t likely that the Walker administration and WPRI are concerned with the indirect costs or externalities brought upon by highways.  In fact it is far more likely they are interested in finding new funds for highway expansion, which is certainly a concern, but one that could be addressed in the long run.  But regardless of everyone’s motives, properly implemented tolling with the goal of paying for some, if not all, of these costs could be a positive for Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin.

Although, the right-leaning Wisconsin Policy Research Institute recently issued a  report supporting toll roads in Wisconsin,
Categories: Car Culture

15 thoughts on “Toll Roads for Wisconsin!”

  1. Jesse Hagen says:

    If we have toll roads, they need to keep the money to reinvest in that toll road.

    I don’t want to see the only tolls in the state to be in the Milwaukee metro and that just means roads in northern Wisconsin get repaved every year, instead of every other year like now. Maybe they should cut the gas tax a bit also… keep it revenue neutral, so we’re not just spending more on roads.

  2. Nick Aster says:

    I’m not to bothered one way or the other, but Toll Roads definitely have a cost in terms of slowing people down. I would much rather simply see the gas tax raised.

  3. The problem that you fail to foresee is that the toll rolls will be privatized. They will then be sold from company to company, each time being accompanied by another increase until you have situation like they do in other states where it costs more to go through the tolls than it does for the tank of gas. It will only serve to cripple the economy even further.

  4. Jeff Jordan says:

    This conversation is worth it if for no other reason than to open the issue of the actual costs to us for the proliferation of automobile travel. Almost anyone I talk to about this issue is in the gas tax pays for roads camp and I don’t believe that is accidental. It serves the interests of some factions to perpetuate that myth. However if you ask city, town, or county officials they will quickly inform you that their costs of maintaining roads in their jurisdiction are not covered by state subsidies or shared federal funds.
    And their are many other hidden costs to building and maintaining roads that most of us are not aware. Thanks Dave for opening this issue up for debate.

  5. John Sterr says:

    I have often thought creating a moat around the city would be a great idea. The people who live inside the moat (city residents) can go in and out for free. Those who choose to live in outlying counties pay to get in and out. In this way those that contribute to urban sprawl, gas consumption, road maintenance needs, etc. have a hand in paying for it. It would also generate income from a population that politically wants to reduce taxes and fees to the city, and yet still wants to reap the benefits of its culture and jobs without paying for it. Of course this is never going to happen but if we are talking tolls we should put it all on the table.

    Chris is right on. When you start tolls then our roads become “assets” to be sold off. That is what happened in Indiana. The only reason Mitch got the state into the black is because he leased the toll road for 75 years to a Spanish firm for a billion dollars. A drop in the bucket compared to the revenue it could generate for the state over the term of the lease. Also tolls never go away. I94 through chicago was supposed to be a temporary toll to get the road built. Now it just keeps going up.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Chris There are toll roads in numerous states (in fact in countries around the world), and they have existed in good times and bad so I’m not sure how they have or will cripple the economy.

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff Yup people don’t realize the true costs because they either don’t pay it, or don’t pay it as they use it.

  8. M says:

    If Wisconsin wants Toll Roads, keep them to the State Highways. Highway 16 from Oconomowoc to Waukesha would be a good one for that. Also Highway 29 in Northern WIsconsin would be another one. Don’t toll the Federal Highways.

  9. @M – I’ll bite, why not the “federal highways”? The state highways have a fair amount of federal funds in them as well.

  10. Peter Zanghi says:

    I’ve always wondered why there aren’t at least tolls on I-94 between Milwaukee and the state line, or on I-90 from the Dells to Madison to the state line. We have to help pay for Illinois’ roads when we go to/through Chicago, why don’t they help pay for ours? Plenty of our friendly Illinois brothers, as well as friends from other states, go north to WI for vacation–and we should capitalize on that. That doesn’t mean we should take advantage of our visitors, it just means that–like the residents of WI–if you’re going to use the roads, you should be expected to pitch in to help maintain them. Especially in a midwestern state where our roads deteriorate much quicker due to our winters. It just makes sense.

  11. Jeff Jordan says:

    John; maybe we can’t build an actual moat around the city, but London has an electronic access fee for the downtown area. (think EZ Pass). However, the point of this is to reduce traffic, not gain revenue.

  12. Garrick Jannene says:

    I don’t think toll roads provide the right economic incentives. Unless you’re pulling a trailer, the toll charges the same to a 6000 lbs SUV as it does to a 3100 lbs “normal” car.

    If the goal is to pay for road maintenance, why don’t we kill two birds with one stone and raise revenue while lowering maintenance needs by using a gas tax to get needlessly heavy vehicles off the road and encourage people to carpool more?

    Oh, right. I know why. It has the word “tax” in it. Remember folks, fees are OK in right wing policy land, but taxes? Hell no. I understand that there are also regional economic implications in raising gas tax, especially in the border areas, but this should be an easy fix. We have some of the cheapest gasoline in the world outside of OPEC, and we need more money to repair our infrastructure. Raise the gas tax, or should I say “automotive usage fee”, and we can fix a whole slew of problems. Energy usage, suburban sprawl, public transit ridership, make that rough ribbon of highway smooth again, you name it.

  13. Dave Reid says:

    @Garrick I have no problem with and support raising the gas tax.

  14. CJ says:

    Unless there is a solution to keep access easy as it the system is now, I feel that toll roads are a bad idea. While open road tolling is great, not everyone gets on board especially those from non-toll states, still necessitating change and manned toll booths. I’ve read the suggestion of implementing the toll system on new roads, but the roads on which it would make sense the most, such as Illinois to Milwaukee and Milwaukee to Madison have already had a large amount of reconstruction done, and redoing infrastructure on those roads seems like a waste of money. Seems like a gas tax with proper channels for usage and taxes on shipping would serve better at this time.

  15. Garrick Jannene says:

    @Dave Yes yes, I know. My being in Germany right now and seeing all of the ultra smooth roads with right-sized, efficient cars on them just makes me angry about American transportation policy. 😛

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