Op Ed

Road Tolls Are Best Way to Fund Highways

Wisconsin could pioneer 21st Century approach to solve the problem.

By - Feb 10th, 2019 05:06 pm

The open road tolling lanes of the West 163rd Street toll plaza, going northbound on the Tri-State Tollway near Hazel Crest, Illinois. Photo by Mrschimpf at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The open road tolling lanes of the West 163rd Street toll plaza, going northbound on the Tri-State Tollway near Hazel Crest, Illinois. Photo by Mrschimpf at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently advocated for tolling as a long-term solution to the state’s transportation funding shortfalls and called for a study that could bring the state one step closer to gaining federal approval for tolling.

During a roundtable discussion at a Wisconsin Counties Association meeting in Madison, Fitzgerald said he does not see a way for the state to address its infrastructure challenges without some form of open-road tolling. He also noted that tolls could generate billions instead of millions of dollars for highway improvements, adding that even a significant increase in the gas tax would fall short of fixing Wisconsin highways.

Analysis from the Badger Institute over the years confirms that tolling on interstate highways is a workable approach for rebuilding and widening the state’s aging Interstate system. It is, in fact, “the only realistic, long-term solution to Wisconsin’s road funding dilemma,” according to Robert Poole Jr., author of Rebuilding and Modernizing Wisconsin’s Interstates with Toll Financing, and Mike Nichols, president of the Badger Institute.

As vehicles become more energy efficient, revenue from gas taxes will slowly decline in coming years.

Borrowing is unsustainable, too. More than 20 percent of all Wisconsin transportation fund revenues already go toward debt service instead of improving our roads. The state spends over a half-billion dollars every year just servicing transportation-related debt.

In a recent Badger Institute commentary, Poole reported that two major studies released late last year strengthen the case for Wisconsin to pursue tolling and validate the need for a Phase 2 interstate tolling study. Funding for such a study was vetoed by Gov. Scott Walker in the last state budget.

A Phase 2 study would allow the state to determine what it would cost to rebuild and widen the state’s aging interstates.

Such a study, he added, could identify “the best ways to ensure that the tolling is done in a customer-friendly way — for example, by offering rebates for fuel taxes on the newly tolled corridors. It also could recommend ways to make the cost of electronic toll collection as low as possible, compared with the high cost of old-fashioned cash tolling. And it could assess value-added features for trucking companies, such as lots of safe overnight parking spaces with various other services, including electric vehicle recharging and alternative fuel sources.”

Modern, all-electronic tolling lets people who use the roads pay for them and provides a fair, quick and convenient way to create a highway system that grows the state economy and allows Wisconsin drivers to reach their destinations safely.

“Wisconsin,” according to Poole, “can pioneer 21st century Interstates, becoming a model for all the other states.”

Michael Jahr, Badger Institute vice president. Founded in 1987, the Badger Institute (formerly the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) guided by the belief that free markets, individual initiative, limited and efficient government and educational opportunity are the keys to economic prosperity and human dignity.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

6 thoughts on “Op Ed: Road Tolls Are Best Way to Fund Highways”

  1. mkwagner says:

    Tolls are a regressive tax. They fall heaviest on those with the least resources to pay. In Illinois, there is an alternative system for those who cannot or do not want to pay the toll. Here in Wisconsin Republicans continuing block any such public transportation system. They refused to accept federal money for the fast-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison, they block any attempt at regional transit planning; they did all in their power to try and stop the light rail system in Milwaukee.

    Imposing tolls without a comprehensive transit system that includes public transportation is shortsighted. It is simply more of the same, tax the working poor and middle class to pay for the convenience of the wealthy.

  2. Areader says:

    Tolls could introduce infrastructure costs for a four year period as the system is built. There will be no revenue at all until the planning, funding, contracting and other costs are paid and all is constructed. Then the hoped-for revenue will be paying off debt for several years. Will we see a nickle in net proceeds before 10 years? In the meantime our highways continue to crumble and local communities must take money from schools and other community needs.

    A gas tax could produce revenue in a few months.

  3. Joyce Ellwanger says:

    If gas taxes would be projected to produced declining revenue due to less driving, how would tolls fare any better?

    For a solution that works now and into the future it makes sense to go with a hike in the gas tax.

    Almost 20% of residents in Milwaukee do not own a car. Most of them are the poor who reply on public transportation. Let’s fund good transit options that connect workers to jobs and the high revenue, immediately available, that a gas tax produces.

    Regional transportation options have not yet been politically possible, but hold the answer for the bigger picture.

  4. Richard Marx says:

    We simply need to change the name of the money collected at the gas pump by the government from “Gas Tax” to “User Fee”. The more you drive, the more you pay. Motorists would not have to buy transponders and the State won’t have to pay millions of dollars for infrastructure. If the State needs more revenue, it can just reside the “user fee”. The more you drive, the more you pay.

  5. Dale Bunger says:

    Aside from the big brother aspect, I think that an electronic toll system on the main highways would be the best solution.
    This would be especially true if the rates were high enough to actually cover the construction/maintenance of those roads. It may push decisions toward heavy rail or public transportation options that make more economic sense.

    Also, it would capture some of the out-of-state dollars that use our roads without putting WI gas stations at a disadvantage and be forward compatible with whatever form of energy we use in the future, electric, hydrogen, dark matter… Wear and tear on the road is the same regardless of energy.

    The infrastructure is minimal in the big picture and the technology is far from unproven. A lot of people that use the highways regularly already have some sort of transponder from our southern neighbor state and it has a very minimal affect on traffic.

    Regarding an alternative to tolls if they were added to our highways, they already exist and are called city and county roads. Take a little longer and enjoy the scenery and small local businesses…

  6. TransitRider says:

    Joyce Ellwanger (#3), gas taxes aren’t declining because of less driving, they decline because of increased fuel economy.

    For example…

    If a car averaging 20 mpg drives 12,000 miles/year, it needs 600 gallons of gas and pays $197/year in state gas tax (at 32.9¢/gal). If that car is traded in for one getting 30 mpg, it uses only 400 gallons/year and pays only $132 in gas tax.

    Same 12,000 miles driven, but $65 less in tax revenue.

    As cars get more and more fuel efficient, less and less gas tax is being collected while most of Wisconsin’s freeways need replacement. Also construction costs keep rising (inflation) while the current gas tax is inflation-proof (it’s the same 32.9¢/gal whether gas costs $1 or $4).

    Dale Bunger (#5), Big Brother doesn’t need I-Pass type transponders; he’s already here via “automated license plate readers” which record the plate number of every passing vehicle and store that data (together with date, time, location, and photos of the vehicle and sometimes even the passengers) in large databases for later retrieval.


    Electronic tolling has many advantages over the gas tax. It can differentiate between freeway driving (full of very expensive bridges) and surface roads (much cheaper to maintain). It can charge more for rush hour driving (when road capacity is limited) than at other times. And it can even charge non-residents higher tolls (New Jersey and New York have been doing this for years).

    I personally like building “High-Occupancy/Toll” lanes (aka “HOT lanes”). In Minnesota, for example, they widened I-394 but limit access to the new lanes at rush hour. In order to use the new lanes (during rush hour) you must EITHER carry 2 or more people (1 plus the driver) OR pay a toll. The toll varies with demand to prevent the new lanes from jamming up, and it works! Toll-paying Solo drivers and non-paying multi-passenger vehicles average 60 mph at rush hour, something that Milwaukeeans can only dream of. Part of the toll revenue goes toward mass transit running in that corridor. The original lanes are still “free”.

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