WASHINGTON – Get ready, drivers. With gas tax revenue stagnant and transportation funds scarce, states are turning to toll roads in 2018 to fill treasuries and manage traffic — despite outrage from motorists and questions about the efficiency of tolls.
The full list of new tolls is hard to track, but at least half a dozen states from Florida to Colorado are slapping tolls on roads that used to be free or building toll-only lanes this year, and many more are expected to do so next year. It all shows how, despite the nation’s relatively robust economy, even the most basic state services — providing roadways, bridges and tunnels — are still being squeezed.
With infrastructure crumbling, budgets teetering on the edge of being in the red in many states, and the growing popularity of fuel-efficient cars, which means gas taxes generate less revenue than they used to, officials are looking to tolls. Giving a boost to the efforts, President Donald Trump’s initial infrastructure proposal also called for widespread use of tolling on interstate highways, which now are limited by federal regulations to certain stretches of road.
Bill Cramer of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association said the lack of funding from gas taxes is “100 percent” of the reason tolls are being imposed or going up. “Local governments are seeing this as a viable and useful option,” Cramer said. “It pays for the road, provides a steady stream of revenue to maintain that road at high quality and safety. And they have been very reluctant to raise the gas tax that would fund those roads.”
Nineteen states have waited a decade or more since last increasing their gas tax rates. Another 13 states have gone at least two decades, and three states — Alaska, Oklahoma and Mississippi — have not increased their gas tax rates since the 1980s, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a progressive think tank that keeps track of fuel taxes. The 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993.
“The money for the roads has to come from somewhere,” said Carl Davis, the research director for the institute. “In some cases, tolls are the path of least resistance.”
And for states that have chosen to raise fuel taxes in the past few years, it’s arguably harder for lawmakers to go back to that well again so soon, again making tolls attractive. Even the higher gas taxes in many states are insufficient to address infrastructure needs.
Florida, for example, indexes its gas tax to inflation, so it goes up a minuscule amount every year. Last year it went up one-tenth of 1 percent, to 36.59 cents a gallon, including local taxes.
This year, the state will open two new toll roads in the Jacksonville area.
Florida state Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican member of the transportation committee, said that particularly in Florida, a state with a lot of tourists, tolls “allow our visitors to help us pay for the roads they need while they are here.”
Baxley said, however, that non-toll roads should be available for “working people for whom this will be a sizable cost.”