The Rough Road Ahead for Real Highway User Fees

The political headwinds working against adopting a system of direct user fees for roads are strong, and one of the biggest reasons is the fact most Americans have little direct experience with them.

I become much more aware of this while reviewing the Federal Highway Administration’s data book Highway Statistics. Only about 5 percent of all transportation revenues, and 8.9 percent of highway “user fees,” come from tolls. They range from $2.2 billion raised in New York State and $1.1 billion in Florida to 17 states with no user fee revenue at all, including Montana, Missouri, Kentucky, Wyoming, and Arkansas.

Moreover, most toll roads are clustered in just a few states. Only 4,778 miles of tolled roads exist in the U.S., and 55 percent of these roads are clustered in the top five states: Florida (679 miles), Oklahoma (596), Pennsylvania (533), New York (512) and New Jersey (335). (Texas comes in sixth with 306 miles).

Not surprisingly, with so few Americans exposed to direct users fees on a regular basis, political support for transforming the current system to a meaingful user fee-based system is low. The problem is compounded by the fact free market advocates (including Reason Foundation) continue to refer to the gas tax as a user fee. While fuel taxes certainly have the broad properties of a user fee–road users pay it–it’s not a true user fee in that revenues are tied to the specific benefits received from the facilities used. Open road (electronic) tolling and a vehicle miles travelled fee are, and, unlike the gas tax, the revenue stream is sustainable as long as roads are used.

We’ve got our work cut out for us if we want to create move toward a truly sustainable, customer driven funding framework for transportation, including highways and roads. Educating the general public on the benefits, accountability, and transparency implicit in direct user fees such as tolls or a vehicle miles travelled fee still needs to be an essential component of that strategy.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.