With the nation’s highway system frayed and running short of funds, the Obama administration has asked Congress to end the current ban on states’ charging tolls to pay for the upkeep of federal interstate highways. The proposal would reverse a proud policy dating to the system’s creation in 1956, when the postwar automobile boom left government flush with fuel taxes and ever bigger highway plans.
The underpinning of that largely toll-free system — the Highway Trust Fund’s fuel taxes — can no longer carry the full federal share of the costs as fuel efficiency improves and infrastructure costs rise. The fund faces deepening shortfalls and hard political resistance to raising the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax that was last increased in 1993.
State highway planners have begun postponing needed projects, with the federal fund predicted to run out of its half of this year’s road costs this summer. “We believe that this is an area where the states have to make their own decisions,” Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, declared.
The proposal to end the ban on tolls, included in the administration’s $302 billion, four-year highway and public-transit program, underlines the urgency for Congress to act with something more than another shortsighted dip into general revenues to meet an estimated $63 billion in shortfalls across the next four years. Lawmakers have been resorting to budgetary duct tape instead of bolstering the nation’s plans for needed roads and public transit by raising the gas and truck diesel taxes.
The 47,000 miles of the federal system have been one of the strengths of modern America. A sensible extension is needed before the current transportation law expires in September. The tired mantra of political incumbents — “No new taxes!” — is a particular disservice to the nation’s motorists as highways deteriorate.