GUEST COMMENTARY: Tolls the best way to fund highway projects in Missouri

Sunday, November 27, 2011 | 3:41 p.m. CST; updated 7:33 p.m. CST, Monday, November 28, 2011

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.

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Derrick Fogle November 27, 2011 | 10:26 p.m.

Missourians currently pay ~$.36/gal in state and federal fuel taxes, supposedly for road construction, maintenance, and repair. That works out to about 1.3 cents per mile based on average fuel efficiency. The Kansas Turnpike system charges users about 2.3 cents per mile, on top of the nearly 2 cents per mile paid in base state and federal fuel taxes, for a user cost of roughly 4.3 cents per mile.

It costs an estimated ~$4 Million per mile per lane for interstate highway construction. To expand the entire Missouri I-70 corridor to at least 6 lanes would likely cost at least ~$1.6 Billion dollars.

I just spent a week in Florida, and had the "Privilege" of driving on their toll roads. The roads are nice enough, but not having an EZ pass means a lot of hassle stopping every so often, paying tolls, and needing exact change in some places. I can only imagine how much of people's time is wasted on all this, not to mention the fuel wasted on the stopping and re-acceleration.

The US Interstate Highway System is the single largest "socialist" public works project undertaken in the history of our country. Virtually every private business in the US has been able to grow, and currently depends, on this massive socialist project. Now we seem to have lost our appetite for these kinds of collective tax-based infrastructure projects.

Good news is, the Chinese are looking to invest in our infrastructure. They want to get in on the ground floor of a massive wave of infrastructure privatization. After all, they can't effectively sell their products here without a transportation system to move the stuff, and they see toll roads as a potentially profitable business. It's a win-win for them.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield November 28, 2011 | 8:12 a.m.

"Missourians currently pay ~$.36/gal in state and federal fuel taxes, supposedly for road construction, maintenance, and repair."

Don't forget that some of that tax revenue is diverted to mass transit projects:

I agree about Florida's toll roads. For tourists -- who are a large percentage of the people on those roads -- it's a hassle to have to stop what seems like every five miles.

(Report Comment)
frank christian November 28, 2011 | 8:39 a.m.

I have always opposed toll roads and stayed away from the Florida Turnpike for the most part because of the expense. At least, ten years ago Europeans had figured how to zap a credit card for the relatively small charge which made the process faster and relieved the need to keep a dish full of quarters within reach for every trip.

The "socialism" of our highway system (which Federal gov't collects in taxes, then returns to states, counties, cities by formula, who then do the needed work), becomes a problem when a state (like ours during Carnahan administration) "loses" 15M$ of newly imposed tax designed to pay for a dream system in Missouri, never to be located. Or, when a President (B. Clinton) adds 5 cents to gasoline tax to be used soley for "deficit reduction", then withholds all the sorely needed highway funding while "cooking the books" to show cash on hand and again, "deficit reduction". The Republican "Taxpayers Relief Act of 1997" while balancing the Budget, returned all this money to the Highway Fund.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle November 28, 2011 | 7:31 p.m.

Roughly 15% of federal highway taxes are redirected to mass (and alternative) transportation. The fund redirections are targeted towards reducing congestion on roadways (you can still argue over their effectiveness).

Roughly 20-25% of all toll road receipts go to administrative costs, which do absolutely nothing to reduce roadway congestion (in fact they would increase it because additional people need to use the roads to get to the toll booth jobs), but hey, I suppose it does create a few jobs.


"Several potential impediments to direct user charges were discussed. First, administration and collection costs are higher for direct user charges than for fuel taxes."

(Report Comment)
frank christian November 28, 2011 | 7:48 p.m.

Did you forget, "One tenth of
one cent per gallon is dedicated to the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust

It has been said that the Florida jobs created by the "fast rail", would have been filled by people moving from highway toll booths to those of the railroad.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 30, 2011 | 12:24 p.m.

From the National Motorists Association:
Why Toll Roads Are A Bad Idea
By James Baxter, NMA President
Toll Roads Divert Traffic And Cause Accidents:
Toll Road Studies:

(Report Comment)
Steve Spellman December 17, 2011 | 9:24 p.m.

Mr. Shapiro, I will agree with part of that first link you shared that the transportation market is distorted due to gov't monopolies. deeper topic.

Additionally, according to this fellow (at 4:30 or so in link below) Fuel Taxes aren't as close to 2nd place behind tolls as I thought - weight of the vehicle has greater wear and tear than a light vehicle travelling greater distance with greater fuel economy; so truckers are subsidized via fuel taxes. However tolls can charge big trucks a toll more consistent with the real cost of their road usage.

Good discussion, thanks. My primary goal with any of this is to get people thinking.

(Report Comment)

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