New Toll Roads On The Way?

The U.S. faces a critical point in making improvements to its aging road infrastructure system, and the trucking industry stands in the center of a national debate on how to fund that work.

America's highways and bridges are in serious need of updating so they can handle the demands of modern traffic. The interstate system, in particular, needs to be modernized, and much of its pavement and bridges are close to the end of their lifespan.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials issued a report in 2009 stating that improving U.S. highways will take about $166 billion annually. No legislation currently before Congress provides that level of funding for transportation infrastructure.

How to update the system for transportation funding and where to find additional money for road projects are being debated by Congress, state leaders and interest groups.

When Congress authorized construction of the interstate highway system in 1956, it imposed a federal tax on each gallon of gasoline. That tax covered 90 percent of the cost of building the interstate system, while states provided the remaining 10 percent. Since the interstate system was completed, gas tax revenues have gone into the Highway Trust Fund to pay for ongoing maintenance and improvements.

However, that funding scheme isn't working anymore. The Highway Trust Fund might become bankrupt in 2013 and hasn't been fully funded by the federal gas tax in recent years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Raising the gas tax to increase transportation funding has become politically unpopular as gas prices approach $4. The gas tax remains at its 1993 level of 18.4 cents a gallon, but it no longer matches the demand for roads as vehicles become more fuel efficient and economically challenged Americans drive fewer miles.

Collecting tolls on the 46,000-mile interstate system has emerged as a controversial funding alternative.

Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri have all gained approval from the U.S. Transportation Department to toll interstates in order to fund road work. Leaders in these states say tolls are one of the few plausible revenue sources they have to pay for these expensive projects.

If North Carolina and Virginia go forward with their tolling plans, drivers could face tolls on Interstate 95, the major north-south artery on the East Coast, from Washington, D.C. to South Carolina.

North Carolina wants to expand its 182-mile stretch of I-95 from four lanes to between six and eight lanes. State Department of Transportation officials say that project will cost $4.4 billion – more transportation dollars than the state budget contains for the next 60 years. Tolls, then, are a quick, certain means to fund improvements to I-95.

Missouri is considering charging tolls to improve a 200-mile stretch of Interstate 70 from Kansas City and St. Louis. Since that's one of the oldest highways in the U.S., the project is a priority but would cost about $2 billion to $4 billion.

Both North Carolina and Missouri would charge similar toll rates, between 10 and 15 cents a mile. Those rates mean a driver would pay between $20 and $30 to use those entire stretches of interstates 95 and 70.

For truckers, the cost could be as much as three times higher. So far, trucking companies have expressed support for a higher gas tax and opposition to new tolls.

They argue that those doing truck driving jobs already bear the expenses of the gas tax and other fees, and charging tolls as well could send truckers onto local roads not designed to bear heavy loads. The American Trucking Association estimates that up to a quarter of truckers could try hopping on local roads to avoid tolls in North Carolina.

State lawmakers, though, argue that trucking companies will benefit from improved highways. Higher speed limits and increased on-time deliveries could make truck driving jobs easier.

Funding alternatives to tolling proposed by Missouri include a higher sales tax and vehicle registration fees.

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