I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that the Missouri Department of Transportation is pursuing the use of toll roads as a funding mechanism for highways like Interstate 70.
Of course, it's partly because the department has run out of borrowed money keeping projects afloat for several years, and I-70 has become just totally inadequate and unsafe. But it’s a good idea, for any reason.
Whenever possible and practical, toll roads are the best way to pay for roads, simply because people who use the road pay for it, and those who don’t, don’t.
This is what we expect from any other economic transaction — the store, the restaurant, the telephone, etc.
Toll collection does have some overhead, such as installing a cashier (a real person or electronic EZ-PASS), but a high-traffic interstate has the economies of scale to be worth it.
Although there are a number of factors, I find that toll roads in Kansas and Florida are nicer than I-70 or Interstate 44 in our state.
Fuel taxes are the next best solution and make sense for most highways, particularly city streets and county roads where tolling systems are impractical.
The more people drive and the larger their vehicle, the more gas they use. Hence, they pay more fuel taxes, which is reflective of use and wear and tear on the roads.
Likewise, those who drive less or have more fuel-efficient vehicles would pay less.
Yes, fuel taxes in Missouri are low compared with other states, for better or worse. We tend to have roads that aren’t as good, but at the same time, MoDOT has had its scandals and inefficiencies.
Whenever politicians can use tax dollars to bring home the bacon to buy votes, the public at large is rarely well served. It's the nature of our beast, I guess.
Beyond tolls and fuel taxes, however, the direct-payment idea gets fuzzier.
Take sales taxes, which assume that the amount you buy is indicative of how much you use the roads in the area. So, if you spend money at a store, you pay the same tax, whether you drove 1 mile or 100 to get there — or if you drove at all.
This completely ignores how much you bought per trip, or whether you bought it on the way to a place you were going already.
Sure, the goods likely got there on the roads somehow, but we’re taxing goods that traveled far (and used more fuel in the process) the same as local products, or products shipped more efficiently.
Usage fees (such as tolls and fuel taxes) naturally favor the local and the efficient. Still, sales taxes have a place, particularly as a way to pay for local roadways.
Property taxes are even worse. They assume that the more valuable your property is, the more you drive. Maybe.
But maybe the owner doesn’t live on the property, or doesn’t drive much, or the commercial property taxed has low traffic.
To be sure, property values are helped by good roads, but perhaps the landowner doesn’t want or need an expensive road. But for rural roads particularly, they make sense.
We have this illusion that freeways are free. But, as Milton Friedman said, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Roads ain’t magically free, either. Whenever we can move from taxes to usage fees for public utilities (electricity, trash or roads), we're better off.
Among possible sources of push back on tolls will be the current legislature, which is opposed to anything that even looks like a new tax.
That being the case, perhaps it could become revenue neutral by figuring how much would be paid in tolls and reducing fuel taxes or other taxes by an equal proportion.
The legislature could also stipulate that tolls collected on a highway remain dedicated to that highway alone and make it contingent on the road actually being improved in a timely manner — so toll payers find value and see that it’s worth paying for.
Don’t frame it as a way to penalize drivers or fight carbon emissions (equally, if not more unpopular in Jefferson City), but a means to implement more market forces in transportation.
Tolls could gain bipartisan support, if described properly.
It should be at least a part of the funding mix for highways in Missouri, whether the state runs it, outsources the toll collection, or sells a long-term lease to a private firm. The details are worth discussing.
However it is implemented, toll roads would be more fair to everyone.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on KOPN/89.5 FM on Tuesdays from 5 to 6 p.m.