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Time to talk tolls for roadwork

By Matt Pommer

State officials have unveiled plans to add two lanes to Interstate 90 between Madison and Beloit.

It might be a good time to think about financing the work with tolls rather than taxes.

Federal rules would need some changes, but that’s possible given the apparent financial crunch facing all levels of government in the next few years. Politicians say they are against taxes, and this would let them to use their voices and votes for an alternative.

The basic concept of toll roads is that users should pay a larger share of the costs. Many people would argue for a free road system. Of course, it’s not free. Wisconsin finances its transportation system with per-gallon fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees.

All states are facing a road-financing pinch. The federal government has imposed high efficiency standards to reduce America’s dependency on imported gasoline products. But 35 mpg cars don’t need as much fuel, and in turn, their owners pay less in gasoline taxes.

Those who drive old, inefficient gas guzzlers pay higher taxes, but the toll idea would shift more of the burden to out-of-state motorists. You don’t have to dislike the Chicago Bears to think that’s an idea worth examining.

Wisconsin’s road financing has long targeted out-of state folks. Wisconsin has relatively low registration fees and is among the states with the highest gasoline taxes.

Some states determine the car registration fee based on the value of the vehicle. The owners of Audis and BMWs pay higher fees than those who drive less expensive compact cars. Wisconsin folks with fancy cars don’t like that idea.

Trucking interests probably would argue against toll roads, suggesting it would undermine everything from manufacturing to tourism in Wisconsin. Free-spending lobbyists may convince politicians, but the public may think the big over-the-road trucks are doing the majority of damage to highways.

In fall, a conservative think tank floated the toll road idea. Given the reaction, you might have thought it had come out against motherhood and the church. Some said the idea undercuts Wisconsin’s tradition of fair taxation and government financing.

There’s no merit in that claim.

Last month, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance issued a detailed report showing the state income-tax system has unintended consequences, conflicting incentives and unnecessary complexity.

A working couple with $40,000 income could reduce its state income tax bill by 15 percent through divorce, according to the Taxpayers Alliance study.

As always, fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

Making major changes in government finance is difficult. The status quo always has lots of friends. That may be especially true for financing the state’s highways.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.


  1. Tolls? How about just use the money collected for the roads, on the roads.

  2. Wisconsin had a gas tax indexing formula that automatically increased or decreased the gas tax based on pricing, miles driven and other factors. Wisconsin had a solid balance in the Transportation Trust Fund. Governor Doyle, took money from the Transportation Fund to balance the General Fund, put IOU’s in the Transportation Fund and told the DOT to issue bonds to keep the Road Projects in process. Right now most of the gas tax goes to pay interest on the bonds. The gas tax is the most equitable tax, if you drive a large luxury car or SUV, you pay more than an economy car or hybrid. If you operate a Semi Truck, you pay a tremendous amount more. If you ride the bus, the car owning motorists subsidize your bus ride.

    Let’s institue a toll road system in Wisconsin, in Illinois the ISTRA is planning on spending $1.4 Billion in the next 10 years to upgrade their system. We have a difficult time funding improvements or even finding matching funds to maintain our existing system.

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