You May Have To Say Goodbye To Your Toll-Free Highways

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The term “freeway” may not make sense for much longer.

To alleviate major budget woes, the Obama Administration wants to allow states to open up tolls on the interstate highway system, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx confirmed to the Washington Post on Tuesday. To that end, the administration has included a proposal to allow tolling in its transportation bill.

“We believe that this is an area where the states have to make their own decisions,” Foxx told the Post. “We want to open the aperture, if you will, to allow more states to choose to make broader use of tolling, to have that option available.”

If tolls actually opened on the interstates, it would reverse a decades-long precedent of keeping those highways free and open to the public. But Foxx says the administration is running out of other options.

“Given the situation at the federal level with the uncertainty of funding the Highway Trust Fund,” Foxx said in an interview earlier this week with the Metropolitan Planning Council, “we do believe that part of our responsibility is to help states and local project sponsors develop new options, new sources of revenue.

“We would never tell a state or a local project sponsor to toll but that optionality is increasingly becoming something that states are interested in, and we’ll consider finding ways to help when that’s an option that states want to consider.”

The federal gas tax, which feeds the Highway Trust Fund that in turn pays for highway construction, has not been raised since 1997. As cars become more efficient and use less gas, the money has begun to dry up, leaving states with no ability to complete desperately needed road repairs. The trust fund is set to be insolvent by the summer, and meanwhile the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the United States’ road infrastructure a grade of D.

The Obama administration’s transportation bill spans four years and would cost $302 billion. It offsets some of the costs through the closure of corporate tax loopholes. But it is unlikely to pass what is one of the least productive Congresses of all time. Without the money, states may be forced to suspend needed repairs on roads and bridges, or they’ll turn to public-private partnerships, like tolls, to try to make ends meet.