WRONG WAY: Anti-Tolling Group Gets It Wrong
Some of Missouri’s roadways are in critical condition. Interstate 70 is half a century old in many places and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Other roadways aren’t far behind. But even with an improving economy, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) doesn’t have the funding to take on the multi-billion-dollar task of reconstructing I-70.
Show-Me Institute researchers have analyzed numerous roadway funding policies, ranging from general revenue diversions to fuel taxes to tolls. We’ve concluded that the best policies are those that let the free market work and impose the costs of roadways on those who use them. That means tolling and fuel taxes should be the way forward for funding Missouri’s road system.
Not everyone agrees. An anti-tolling group is calling for a constitutional ban on tolling in Missouri, claiming that tolls are unfair and economically pernicious. The group claims to be committed to “solving Missouri’s transportation crisis,” but I can find nothing on their website about how the rebuilding of Missouri’s interstates should be funded. The group offers an abundance of negatives about tolling, but many of their claims are incorrect or misguided. Let’s break some of them down here and set the record straight.
- Tolling is double taxation. We already pay for roads with fuel taxes, so we shouldn’t have to pay tolls, too.
MoDOT cannot cut its way to a new I-70. Over the past six years, it has reduced costs by $605 million, but that’s not money for new projects—that’s money to keep shop open. So, for I-70 to get the attention it needs, new revenues will need to be generated. Whether those revenues come from tolls, fuel taxes, general taxes, or some other source, they will be new; they will be on top of existing taxes. One might worry that tolls constitute double taxation, but do tolls differ that much from a higher fuel tax or higher (or diverted) sales taxes? Is paying two taxes, $1 and $1 each, really any different or worse than paying a single $2 tax?
Important to note too is that discussions about tolling I-70 have mostly focused on tolling only new, additional lanes, not the existing lanes. That means only the drivers who use the new lanes would be tolled, so if you didn’t want to pay a toll, you wouldn’t have to.
- Tolling will hurt businesses near tollbooths and hamper the freight industry’s growth.
This argument is another way of complaining that businesses near interstates will not be subsidized. When driving is made artificially cheap through general taxation (e.g., through sales taxes as opposed to fuel taxes or tolls), land near interstates becomes more valuable because of the higher consumer traffic. On the other hand, if drivers must pay to use the roads, the consumer traffic on interstates could be lower, reducing the value of nearby land. In short, a toll-free road means all Missourians are paying to create demand for a select few businesses along the interstate.
Some worry that tolling, which would show drivers the true cost of driving, would deter consumers from businesses along the interstate. While it’s true that tolling may hurt some businesses near interstates, it does so only by unburdening taxpayers in general. If roads are paid for with tolls, that means other taxes previously dedicated to roads can either stay in taxpayers’ pockets or be spent on other public services.
And just as taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize businesses near interstates, they shouldn’t have to subsidize trucking companies (many of which do not employ Missourians). Heavy trucks do well over 90% of the damage to our roads, so why shouldn’t they should pay for rebuilding them (via tolls)?
- Toll roads are poor investments, and when they fail, taxpayers are on the hook.
Some proposals to toll I-70 call for private firms to invest in the roadway in exchange for tolling concessions. Such an arrangement would let firms try to make a profit from tolls, but only by assuming the risk of major capital investment. Like other enterprises, toll roads run the risk of going under. But contrary to what anti-toll crusaders claim, taxpayers do not bear the risk of toll roads. Firms are required to invest in the roadway before collecting tolls, so the public gets a new road regardless of whether the company makes a profit. If a firm goes under, its assets are repossessed, but that just means a different firm owns the road—the new road the public gets to enjoy.
Tolling is by no means the only way forward, but it is a way forward. Dozens of states across the country have successful toll roads and bridges, and Missouri can, too. Banning toll roads won’t solve Missouri’s transportation woes; in fact, given policymakers’ reluctance to increase fuel taxes, it would cut off yet another free-market policy solution.