If Indiana lawmakers want to fully address the state’s road funding problem, they should seriously look at including toll roads as part of that equation.
Right now, the state has $1.1 billion worth of road funding needs but not that much money. Numerous proposals are on the table to help close the funding gap: an increase in the gas tax (adjusted for inflation), shifting all the sales tax revenue on gasoline toward road funding (some key lawmakers aren’t crazy about that), using some sort of tracking measurement on vehicles so drivers would pay by the mile (tin-foil-hat wearers are now on high alert).
Unfortunately, those might not generate enough and the state is looking at millions of dollars in unmet road needs.
So what’s the answer—or at least part of the answer? Toll roads.
Say what? Yes, toll roads. They address two major problems: They give you a stable source of long-term road funding revenue and they also capture out-of-state traffic and don’t put the bulk of the burden on the locals. Allow me to elaborate.
First of all, a toll road is the ultimate user fee. You don’t pay the toll unless you use the road. Indiana is the crossroads of America and within a day’s drive of 80 percent of the country; that’s a lot of people using the roads who aren’t necessarily helping pay for them.
Second, toll roads can provide a reliable long-term funding mechanism because, regardless of how many miles-to-the-gallon someone can get or how far they can drive on a charge in their electric vehicle, they still have to use the roads.
Third, and some could argue most important, under current federal rules, while you can toll for bridge improvements and the roads connected to them, a government can’t implement tolls until after the work is done. (Take a look at recent bridge work on the Ohio River to see what I mean.) So, yes, while you would be paying for a road, you could see what you’re paying for. That can go a long way at times to make people feel better about tolls.
Now exactly how the tolls would work in Indiana would remain to be seen because there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Where do you toll? How much do you toll? Do you toll in urban areas like I-465 in Indianapolis or I-469 in Fort Wayne? Do you use an electronic toll pass or the old-fashioned crossing-guard arm? And do you toll at every entrance or exit ramp? And what about the people who don’t want to pay a toll, so they get off the interstate and clog up your state roads?
Indiana has more than $1 billion in unmet road needs. Just maintaining what already exists is going to cost an extra $368 million over what’s being budgeted right now. And while you could raise the gas tax to help pay for this, get ready to pay an additional 26 cents a gallon.
At the end of the day, the responsible way to pay for Indiana’s infrastructure is with a mix of funding options—and the use of tolls should be one of them. If you will allow me to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway—and you knew this was coming—ask not for whom the road tolls; it tolls for all of us.•