Truck-Friendly Tolls for 21st Century Interstates

Policy Study

Truck-Friendly Tolls for 21st Century Interstates

How to modernize the Interstate highway system and address the trucking industry's concerns about tolling

Of all highway users, the trucking industry has the most at stake in ensuring a solid future for the Interstate highway system. Together with the other principal routes that comprise the National Highway System, the 47,000 miles of Interstate are trucking companies’ primary arteries of commerce.

But the continued viability of the Interstates is now in question. Over the next two decades, most Interstates will exceed their design lives and will need to be reconstructed-their original pavement replaced, not just resurfaced. In addition, projected increases in traffic-especially truck traffic-means that many of these corridors will require additional lanes over the next two decades.

A modernized, second-generation Interstate system featuring new pavement, redesigned interchanges, lane expansions, and dedicated truck lanes would reduce congestion, lower truckers’ fuel consumption per ton-mile, enable drivers to haul more freight, and practically eliminate collisions between trucks and cars.

The key to making this vision a reality is to embrace all-electronic tolling. This study details the value proposition for the trucking industry in supporting such an “Interstate 2.0” endeavor.

First, the study identifies the problems with two ways of increasing investment in major highways that have been advocated by the trucking industry: an across-the-board increase in federal gasoline and diesel taxes, and an increase in just the diesel tax, with the proceeds dedicated to a new highway freight program.

Next, the study describes how 21st century all-electronic tolling is already being used by the trucking industry, as well as the efforts currently underway by the toll industry to provide nationwide tolling “interoperability” by 2016.

The study also provides a fresh look at the cost of toll collection in systems designed from the outset for all-electronic, transponder-based tolling. While 20th century (mostly cash) collection is widely estimated to consume 20 percent to 30 percent of the toll revenues, a transponder toll collection system on a long-distance Interstate is estimated to cost just four percent to five percent of revenues.

The study then addresses concerns raised by the trucking industry about greater use of tolling, including:

  • Confidentiality of routing and billing information;
  • Being able to pass through toll charges to shippers;
  • Predictable toll rates;
  • Different rates on every highway; and,
  • Cost compared with current tolls and taxes.

Next, the study addresses the major question of how highway users-motorists and truckers alike-could be guaranteed that a toll-financed program to replace aging Interstates with a 21st century version would deliver value for money. It proposes federal enabling legislation plus corresponding state enabling legislation that would:

  • Limit the use of the toll revenues to the newly tolled facilities;
  • Charge only enough to cover the full capital and operating costs of the tolled facilities;
  • Begin tolling only after a facility (or major portion thereof) is completed and open to traffic; and,
  • Use tolls instead of, rather than in addition to, current state fuel taxes.

The study proposes expanding a pilot program that currently allows three states to each reconstruct a single Interstate using toll financing. The pilot should be expanded to more states to increase the likelihood of one or more states working out a political consensus that includes highway users. A use-it-or-lose-it provision would prevent a state from holding a slot indefinitely without using it. In addition, a participating state would be allowed to put forth a plan to replace all its Interstates via this approach, to avoid geographic inequities across the state.

Finally, the study calls for strengthening the current program’s weak protections for highway users based on the four principles listed above.

Congress could include these revisions to the pilot program in the current bill to reauthorize the federal highway and transit program. Highway user groups, including trucking organizations, should join with auto clubs in supporting such revisions.

Attachments

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.