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A Tolling Adversary Has Second Thoughts

By: 
Bill Cramer

“Tolling the interstates—all interstates, not just I-80—deserves consideration.”

With that simple quote, a newspaper in rural Pennsylvania showed what it takes to change public attitudes on tolling.

The catalyst was the mid-September release of Interstate 2.0, the Reason Foundation’s study that points to per-mile tolls as a viable tool to finance the reconstruction of the U.S. Interstate highway system. But the Record’s editorial writer pointed to the longer sequence of events that led to the change in thinking.

“Pennsylvania has considered tolling Interstate 80 before—and this newspaper opposed it,” the Record stated.

“But year after year, states are collecting lower gas-tax revenues, the result of more fuel-efficient vehicles, alternative-energy vehicles, and fewer miles driven. And year after year of postponed repairs have placed the essential maintenance of the nation's badly aging infrastructure out of reach of the available funds.”

The History in Pennsylvania

There was probably little need for the Record to remind its readers of the recent history of tolling in Pennsylvania.

The state legislature agreed to toll I-80 in 2010, but was turned down by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. “If the I-80 tolls had been approved, Pennsylvania would have had $922 million available in the fiscal year that starts July 1 for repairing roads and bridges and for operating transit systems,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported at the time.

“Without the I-80 tolls, the state will generate $450 million from higher tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

Fast forward a couple of years and, as the Pocono Record pointed out, Pennsylvania has more than its share of bridges in imminent need of maintenance and repair. “Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation announced new weight restrictions on some 1,000 state and local bridges aimed at slowing their deterioration. Of those, 53 are in Monroe County.”

The Story Tells Itself

So how do attitudes change?

The process starts with a problem that everyone can see, but few know how to solve. People turn to old methods to patch the holes (literally or figuratively), and maybe that works for a while.

Over time, the problem becomes more serious. An occasional annoyance gradually becomes a daily nuisance. The nuisance becomes a danger. The old methods get less and less effective. After a while, solutions that once seemed outlandish start to look pretty good. And then, the rest of the story begins to tell itself.

Soon, maybe to their own surprise, old adversaries start considering new ways of thinking. They begin to see the new way as the right way. And before you know it, a solution that seemed utterly impossible a few months or a couple of years ago, now has more appeal.

Big, Local, and Imminent

In the Poconos, an important community opinion leader changed its attitude when a long-standing problem became big, local, and imminent. IBTTA members know that the same story is playing out in communities across the U.S., and around the world. That’s the inevitable logic that drives our Moving America Forward campaign.

“Like it or not, the nation must properly support its interstate highway system somehow. The economy and our very freedom of movement depend on it,” the Pocono Record stated.

“Given the high stakes—compromised public safety and inadequate funding—tolling the interstates offers Pennsylvania and other states a new funding source that is desperately needed.”

Long-held attitudes don’t change overnight. But that’s all the more reason to notice and celebrate the small, significant victories along the way. In the Poconos, one more influential editorial writer got the message last month.

photo credit: Nicholas_T via photopin cc