There’s no question that tolling one of Indiana’s major interstates could generate a serious influx of cash to help maintain and improve the state’s roads—money lawmakers in both parties say is desperately needed.
But are taxpayers willing to pay a few bucks to travel highways that now are free?
Lawmakers might be about to find out.
Republicans in the Indiana House have included a provision in their road-funding plan that directs the state to study the effects of tolling interstates 65, 70 and 80/94 and to petition the federal government for permission to toll. They’re fueled by a recent study that found tolling I-65 and I-70 could bring in $22.5 billion and $11.1 billion, respectively, over 30 years.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said road-funding challenges call for states to “move into the tolling business.”
But the prospect of tolling a major interstate faces several hurdles—from uncertain federal approval to traffic-flow challenges.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is whether lawmakers can garner public support and the political will to impose a user fee that is much more visible to drivers than a typical tax hike.
“The right question: Is there the political courage? Not the political will,” said Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso. “It would be irresponsible not to study it. Do we want to do what’s right, or do we want to kick the can down the road?”
But tolling a major interstate could be an especially difficult sell without a governor who is cheerleading the project. And Republican Gov. Mike Pence is not a fan.
“Gov. Pence proposed a $1 billion transportation plan that doesn’t raise taxes on hard-working Hoosiers,” said his spokeswoman, Kara Brooks. “He is also opposed to tolling existing roads.”
But Pence’s plan provides funding largely for road projects now—not in the future. Lawmakers are thinking longer term.
John Gregg, Pence’s Democratic challenger in the 2016 election, declined to comment on the question of tolling one of Indiana’s interstates.
“It’s premature to say whether it’s a good idea or not,” his spokesman Jeff Harris said. “We’re not ruling anything in or out at this point.”
Without the governor on board, House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said, gaining voter support would be tough.
“I don’t know how you make that case to the larger public if you don’t have a chief executive that’s going out on the road, if you don’t have a supermajority that’s speaking with one voice,” Pelath said. “Ideas are ideas and they can be good ones, but they’ve got to be ones that people are going to bite off on.”
Polling has been mixed on whether drivers support tolling—at least nationally.
A 2014 poll from infrastructure group HNTB Corp. found 79 percent of U.S. drivers would support new tolls on non-tolled roads if it resulted in a safer and quicker trip.
But a poll the same year by the Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports found nearly the opposite. That survey, which used automated calls, found only 22 percent of Americans favor tolls on interstate highways to pay for road maintenance.
Dennis Faulkenberg, a transportation adviser and former deputy commissioner at the Indiana Department of Transportation, said educating people about technological advances in tolling could smooth over some critics. Electronic toll collection allows drivers to traverse toll plazas at high speeds—and, rather than paying a little something every day, they pay in lump sums.
“A lot of the criticism is from the antiquated idea of stopping and waiting in line of a toll booth to throw quarters in,” Faulkenberg said. “It’s not like that anymore. I think you could overcome that with some education.”
But former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said Indiana residents might see tolling as paying an extra fee for something they’ve already paid for. Lingering frustration about former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ 2006 deal to lease the Indiana Toll Road for $3.8 billion might be an extra hurdle for lawmakers to tackle.
“You can sell a toll to people when you’re building a new road,” Helmke said. “When you already have a road like I-65 or I-70, it’s a lot harder. They feel like they’ve already given up something with the control of the toll road in order to fix the roads. If they think they’ve already paid for the fix, it will take a masterful sales job.”
Proposals to toll existing interstates have faced difficult political obstacles elsewhere.
The Federal Highway Administration has just three pilot spots available to states that are interested in imposing interstate tolling on existing roads to fund infrastructure improvements. All three spots have been occupied for years by Missouri, Virginia and North Carolina—but there’s been no action.
Despite the prospect of an influx of cash to pay for roads, those states have all faced challenges getting support from the public and their Legislatures, said Kevin Hoeflich, HNTB Corp. vice president and toll market leader.
“Ultimately, they’ve not garnered the support and political will to move forward,” Hoeflich said. “Nobody likes to pay a toll today, but I think there’s a better understanding that transportation isn’t free. You can certainly educate on the whys and hows, but I don’t think I’d want to be a politician running for re-election.”
The fact that the federal pilot project has been around for 17 years and has never resulted in a successful major tolling project tells you something about how hard it is to bring people on board, said Jay Smith, spokesman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates.
Still, Soliday said Indiana should get its application in soon in case the feds take a “use it or lose it” approach with the pilot spots and open them up after years of inaction. Smith, however, remains skeptical.
“These states have spent years and a lot of taxpayer dollars studying it and have all ended up in the same place: deciding it’s not a good idea and they can’t move forward,” he said. “That’s a word of caution to other states that consider it.”•