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.