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States turning to tolls to pay for roadwork

By Walt Williams
The State Journal

Traffic flows along the Tri-State Tollway near O'Hare International Airport in Illinois. Many states, including Wisconsin, are considering toll roads to pay for maintenance and infrastructure costs associated with roads. Currently, fuel taxes are the main source of revenue for road construction, but economists say toll roads often represent a better way of paying for construction. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois Tollway Authority)

Charleston, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia has a little less than 77 miles of toll road in its borders, with the West Virginia Turnpike accounting for all of it, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Not all states have toll roads, but many of those that do have more miles of toll road than the Mountain State. They range from a high of 685 miles on tolled interstate and noninterstate roads in Florida to a low of just one toll mile in Utah.

Those numbers likely will grow. The main source of revenue for road maintenance and road construction at both the state and federal levels has been the fuel tax. But fuel taxes are not keeping pace with the cost of maintaining roads, thanks in large part to the development of more fuel-efficient vehicles and changing driving habits.

The simplest solution would be to raise fuel taxes, but that option hasn’t been popular with politicians elected to office on the promise of keeping taxes low. The federal fuel tax hasn’t been raised in any significant fashion since 1993. A recent suggestion by President Barack Obama’s deficit commission to raise the federal fuel tax by 15 cents a gallon by 2013 largely fell on deaf ears.

Toll roads tend to encounter public opposition no matter where they’re built, but economists say tolls often represent a better way of paying for roads.

A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles concluded fuel taxes fall disproportionately on poor people.

Researchers acknowledged that low-income people pay a lot of money out of pocket through tolls, but as a group they pay less money than they would for such revenue generators as sales taxes.

Other economists tend to agree, according to a 2006 paper by Robin Lindsey of the University of Alberta. Lindsey tallied the writings from a wide range of economists and concluded that most favored tolls to raise road money.

“Beyond that primary insight, however, there is much disagreement,” Lindsey wrote. “Economists disagree over how to set tolls, how to cover common costs, what to do with any excess revenues, whether and how ‘losers’ from tolling previously free roads should be compensated and whether to privatize highways. These disagreements fill a lot of pages, while the main point of agreement is largely taken for granted.”

At the same time, economists’ reassurances have done little to alleviate the concerns of critics such as the National Motorists Association, which advocates for drivers.

The NWA and other critics argue that toll roads often require the establishment of new bureaucracy to collect and manage the tolls. They also take issue with the argument that tolls represent a “free-market” solution to the problem, noting motorists have little say over the tolls they pay and there is little in the way of competition when it comes to highway services.

“You’ve got the fuel tax,” NWA Executive Director Gary Biller said. “It’s not the greatest system in the world, but it seems to be the best we have.”

Virginia transportation officials, working under a memorandum of understanding with the West Virginia Parkways Authority, are moving ahead with plans to convert part of U.S. 35 into a toll road. The next step is for two public hearings about the proposed tolls, which start at $2 per tollbooth and go up depending on the size of the vehicle.

State transportation officials did not make themselves available for this story.

Virginia Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said some changes probably would need to be made to the toll law when lawmakers meet in regular session next year.

Among them is clarifying that the tolls go away once they’ve raised the money to pay off the initial price of the project.

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