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Interstate 2.0: Bringing Home the Urgency of Tolling

By: 
Pat Jones

By Pat Jones, Executive Director and CEO, IBTTA

As the U.S. Congress prepares for the Transportation Reauthorization in September 2014, the Reason Foundation has released a smart, pragmatic roadmap for funding a complete overhaul of the Interstate highway system.

Interstate 2.0: Modernizing the Interstate Highway System via Toll Finance is the first serious effort to test the feasibility of using moderate, inflation-adjusted tolling revenue to fund the reconstruction and expansion that the Interstate system so desperately needs. The plan recognizes two basic truths at the heart of transportation funding and finance:

  • Users should pay for the roads they drive.
  • Once a road is built, it needs a steady flow of funding for upkeep, maintenance, and reconstruction.

Most people understand the user-pay principle for highways. I like to compare it to another piece of critical infrastructure that was built in 1956, the same year President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act.

Construction is Only the Beginning

In 1994, my wife and I bought a home in Alexandria, Virginia, a 38 year old, 1,600 square-foot, brick split-level house on one-sixth of an acre of land. Over the next 10 years, we made a number of improvements to our little house. We replaced the roof. We remodelled the kitchen. We redesigned and rebuilt two bathrooms, replaced all of the major appliances, and upgraded the electrical service to meet the needs of a growing family in the first years of the 21st century. We also added a 500-square foot family room that became the center of our lives at home, with sofas for lounging and a large, flat-screen TV to watch our favorite programs.

Over the years, those improvements cost us more than we originally paid to buy the house in 1994. And they were worth every penny.

When we moved in, we had two children ages one and four, with another one on the way. Our lives were relatively simple, with play groups and preschool just beginning to shape our lives. We didn’t do much socializing at home because of the demands of raising young children.

Today, those children are 23, 19, and 18, and our house has become a beehive of activity for our children and their friends. We’ve entertained hundreds, perhaps thousands of neighbors, friends, schoolmates, community groups, and more.

From our annual New Year’s Eve party and talent show, to the kids’ birthdays, graduation parties, and cast parties following high school plays, our home and our family room are at the core of a rich social life that has shaped our children and their lives.

Alexandria Split Level 2.0

Somebody built my house in 1956. Somebody paid for it. And many dozens of people built the surrounding community of which it is a part. A generation later, I’m grateful that my family and I can reap the benefits of their vision and hard work. But we don’t live in the same house that was built in 1956. Our home today is bigger and more comfortable, filled with features that nobody could have imagined in 1956. Our house today is a much improved version of the one that was built in 1956.

You might say that we live in Alexandria Split Level 2.0.

An Interstate System for Tomorrow

The Interstate system has followed a similar trajectory.

  • The United States has a population of 315 million today, compared to 170 million in 1956.
  • In 2002, Americans logged 280 billion vehicle miles travelled (VMT) on Interstate highways, compared to 135 billion in 1980.
  • The relatively small national family that began to use the Interstate system in the 1960s has evolved into the vibrant, diverse family that uses it today.

But the roads themselves are aging and need major improvements.

Just as we found with our home, those improvements will cost more than we paid to build it in the first place. They’ll be worth every penny. But, we simply can’t afford to rebuild it using our current funding methods.

That’s why the reasonable, rational approach in Interstate 2.0 is such a breath of fresh air. It’s the kind of thinking we need if we hope to keep our highways safe and efficient and the Highway Trust Fund solvent.

Federal law currently prohibits tolling existing lanes of Interstate highways, so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us to make the Reason Foundation’s vision a reality. But I’m looking forward to that effort, because I know our children and grandchildren will some day thank us for the investments we make on their behalf.

photo credit: j l t via photopin cc