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How Tolling Helps Surface Transportation ‘Win the Peace’

By: 
Bill Cramer

What does it say about a country’s approach to highway and other infrastructure investment if we’re constantly fighting a war, rather than winning the peace?

And how much better can we prevail against a very tough enemy—in this case, the inevitable, predictable erosion of pavement, concrete, and steel—if we invest what we need to win the war by preventing it?

In domestic infrastructure as in international affairs, there are times of crisis when you have to go to war. And a multi-trillion-dollar funding gap in surface transportation sure feels like one of those times.

But most anyone who’s ever been in combat will tell you that it’s only worth it if there’s a clear picture of what success looks like and a coherent plan for securing the peace after the fighting.

Infrastructure: A Continuation of War by Other Means?

There was a time when this line of thought was standard operating procedure for the United States. And it so happens that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, later the architect of the country’s interstate highway system, had a hand in the solution.

In the first half of the 1940s, it took all the Allied armies to win the war against an implacable foe. But then, the Marshall Plan secured the peace by pumping billions of dollars into western Europe, rebuilding shattered infrastructure and re-establishing the continent’s economy.

Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz famously described war as “the continuation of politics by other means,” but the reverse is also true: Politics, and infrastructure investment, turn out to be the surest way to solidify the victory and achieve the objectives behind the original conflict.

But here’s a profound strategic error that would leave von Clausewitz aghast: in America, and elsewhere, we define highway access as construction and paving. Once the ribbon is cut and the construction crews go home, we figure the war is won, while a tireless (and, in this case, inanimate) enemy eats away at our hard-earned gains.

Rather than collecting modest but reliable revenue to maintain and improve our investment, we forget why we went to war and gradually give up the ground we’ve won.

Then we find ourselves facing another crisis, with no choice but to pour people, equipment, and dollars into the breach.

Securing the Peace Against Highway Congestion

In 2014, Iraq War veteran and then-RideScoutTM CEO Joseph Kopser came up with a more visceral connection between the 2.9 billion gallons of fuel that American drivers were idling away in congestion each year and the U.S. service members who “were paying for that oil with their blood and lives.” In an email exchange with Tolling Points, he connected the dots back to user financing.

“They were escorting fuel convoys through some of the most hostile territory in the country, in what came to be known as one of the most dangerous assignments of the war, full of roadside IEDs,” he wrote. “Back in the States, I saw millions of dollars’ worth of fuel being wasted by inefficient generators and vehicles—the very fuel we were there to protect.”

Those very real human impacts became a part of Kopser’s definition of the “fully burdened cost of transportation,” leading him to see road pricing as “a signal, not a burden”. In a very direct way that traced back to Kopser’s own friends and comrades, tolling was about securing the peace.

Tolling: Better Than the Marshall Plan

But there’s one line of thought that makes tolling an even better investment than the Marshall Plan.

Rebuilding Europe was without doubt a massive but massively valuable investment in America’s own prosperity. The Marshall Plan built up a bulwark against potential German or Soviet aggression and fostered European trade with the U.S. It was vastly preferable to post-First World War economic policies that helped give rise to a second global conflict.

But it also had a secondary consequence: It helped build economic powerhouses like modern Germany that now compete against U.S. companies on the world stage.

By that measure, tolling is all gain, no pain. The infrastructure it rebuilds and maintains is right here at home (wherever in the world you call home). It produces physical, here-and-now benefits that can’t be exported. It creates jobs in our own cities, communities, and Congressional districts. It delivers dramatic gains in safety, mobility, and reliability that make our economy stronger more efficient.

And if we get it right, it means we win the “war at home” against a crippling infrastructure deficit.

If politics is the continuation of war by other means, it follows that steady, predictable funding is the continuation of construction and paving. It takes more than a vast, heroic rebuilding effort to deliver highway access. We secure our future and economic success on the roads by our willingness to pay for it.

Ready to win the war at home? Join your colleagues at IBTTA’s Summit on Finance, Policy, and VMT, April 23-25, 2017 in Jersey City, and at the Maintenance and Roadway Operations Workshop, May 21-23, 2017 in New Orleans.