Pennsylvania had an idea during the Depression: Let’s build a road for motor cars and finance it with fees charged the driver of each car that travels it. Thus the toll road was born in 1934. Many people today do not celebrate the birth.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike was successful beyond all expectations. Fewer than a thousand cars a day were expected to travel the initial 160-mile stretch that eventually spanned the state. However, more than 25,000 vehicles each day quickly found their way onto the paved road.
In the 1950s, this limited-access traveling experience was replicated across the country when the interstate highway system began. A few of those new roadways had driver fees, too, but times were more prosperous so tolls were fewer. Today, with funding of highways now embroiled in red-ink budget turmoil, tollbooths are popular again.
Campaign protests in North Carolina and acrimonious public hearings in Texas testify to the growing resistance to pay-out-the-window highways. Proponents say tollbooths are a sustainable and fair way to fund new construction. Opponents say subsidies of public toll road projects and profit guarantees for privatized roadways still cost taxpayers into perpetuity.
The truth of the matter lies in between. Yes, privatization of roadways can make sense. Yes, toll roads can help recoup construction costs as well as operating and maintenance costs. But both funding approaches are needed only because state and federal authorities spend tax money in lean times like they were fat ones. Two little-followed guidelines: Spending should reflect income and spending priorities are always appropriate.
To do away with toll roads, advocates of better highways—which certainly include highway contractors and heavy equipment dealers—must make the case for highway construction as a budget priority. It is not enough to say the U.S. needs new bridges and highway reconstruction. The case must be made that the need is greater than some competing needs. Winning that political debate will see more tax dollars going to highways and fewer toll booths being built.