Highway Funding Made Simple -- You Use It, You Pay For It

Here is a simple principle all Americans understand: If you use it, you pay for it.

What could be more basic? As every consumer knows--whether it's water, electricity or heating oil--what you pay is directly proportionate to what you use.

It's the same concept federal policymakers relied on in 1956 when they created the federal gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund that built America's highways. As motorists purchased and used fuel, they paid to build our highways and support them in rough proportion to their use of those highways.

But then something happened: Somewhere along the line, lawmakers put the gas tax on ice. In fact, Congress has not increased the gas tax since 1993--an entire generation ago. If that tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon, had been indexed to inflation, which it is not, it would be nearly 33 cents today.

And nothing appears to be changing. Congress's most recent surface transportation bill, signed into law in December, once again leaves the gas tax untouched--and instead draws billions of dollars of funding out of the federal government's general fund.

This shifts the burden of maintaining our highways onto all taxpayers, and moves away from the "user pays" approach that has been in effect since 1956 --the year the Federal-Aid Highway Act first appropriated funds for the U.S. interstate highway system.

Congress is sending the states a clear message: the federal government is gradually moving away from providing a dedicated source of funding to support state transportation programs.

Making matters worse, the new five-year bill relies on a variety of offsets--money pulled from other parts of government--to pay for itself. That's just not sustainable. We have to find another way.

What this means is that state governments need to find other sources of funding to keep their highway programs whole. And many are finding tolling to be that solution. Tolling brings us closer once again to the "user pays" principle that helped create America's modern highways.

And the timing for motorists could not be better. As anyone who regularly travels today's toll roads can attest, tolling is becoming more convenient as tolling authorities move to faster, all-electronic tolling systems that permit a freer flow of traffic.

Moreover, tolling operators are embracing new technologies and business rules to make traveling on toll facilities even more convenient. They are creating a network that allows motorists to drive on any toll facility in the country--with one account and one transponder. Soon the days of wondering whether your toll transponder will work on a toll facility in another part of the country will be over. Having a nationwide transponder will mean that you have the convenience of being able to drive on any toll facility in the country without stopping and waiting to pay with cash.

The other advantage of all electronic tolling and nationwide interoperability, besides convenience, is that the tolls you pay go directly to maintain and improve the highways on which you travel. And states get a dependable, sustainable stream of revenues to keep their highways and bridges modern, well-maintained, safe and efficient.

Tolling is not the only tool in the transportation funding toolbox. But it is a powerful and effective tool that has been used successfully since the very first highways were built in America. A highway funding mechanism that was effective centuries ago is popular and effective again today because it's convenient and gets the job done.