Staff Columnist

Drivers, not taxpayers, should cover Iowa's road funding shortfall

Republicans and Democrats alike staunchly oppose tolls.

Traffic slows to a crawl on Interstate 380 at the 32nd Street interchange after an accident involving at least two cars this morning, Friday, Sept. 7, 2007.
Traffic slows to a crawl on Interstate 380 at the 32nd Street interchange after an accident involving at least two cars this morning, Friday, Sept. 7, 2007.

Toll roads have suffered a bad reputation for too long.

Road use fees are easy political punching bags from all sides. Many conservatives see them as double taxation for services the public has already paid for; many liberals see them as excessively burdensome on the poor, or ripe for corporate takeovers; and politically apathetic motorists seem to hate them as well.

However, Iowa and nearly every other state face a long list of transportation needs in the coming years, and governments lack the resources to cover all the expenses. Americans love driving, and someone has to pay for it.

The national infrastructure plan released by President Donald Trump’s staff this week calls for rolling back the federal government’s restrictions on toll roads. The administration envisions tolls as “a major source of revenue for infrastructure investment.”

The Trump plan would require more than $1 trillion from states, local governments and businesses. I highly doubt that will all come from existing government and corporate revenue streams.

Tolls have two key benefits — generating revenue for infrastructure projects, and deterring cars from the busiest routes. Tolls incentivize drivers to forego unnecessary trips, alter their schedules or reroute. That all reduces traffic congestion.

Additionally, modern technology offers an opportunity to make road fees more fair, cracking down on freeloading hybrid car drivers like myself, who are skipping out on our fair share of the gas tax through higher fuel efficiency.

I realize imposing more user fees on Iowa highways would be a contentious process with many important details to consider, and the Trump administration’s proposal isn’t necessarily the best option. Still, it’s a conversation worth having.

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Iowa’s political fight over the fuel tax is a classic example of the public’s distaste for increased user fees. Lawmakers put off the issue for years, leading up to a fierce clash in 2015 between then-Gov. Terry Branstad and some of his own Republican allies in the Legislature. The bill passed.

Yet Iowa still has more roadway miles per capita than most other states, and millions of new dollars from the gas tax increase is not adequate to meet all the assessed needs. A 2011 report from the Iowa Department of Transportation projected an annual shortfall of $1.6 billion over the following 20 years.

Iowa’s infrastructure deficiencies are not just an inconvenient money hole, but also a potential safety hazard. Iowa officials logged 331 traffic deaths last year, in line with the five-year average. Cars in Iowa are deadlier than either guns or opioids.

As of Friday, Iowa had seen 41 traffic deaths since the beginning of 2018, significantly higher than at this point in the past five years. By mid-February 2017, the number was just 27.

Interstate-380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids is one of the busiest roadways in the state. The span north of Swisher logged more than 55,000 daily vehicles in the DOT’s most recent traffic count. The state is currently studying that span and taking public input about possible improvements.

I make that trip two or three times each week for work. I can tell you those commutes are the most horrifying half hours of my otherwise comfortable existence. Anyone who doubts the need for more capacity there should take a drive on a wintry Friday after office hours.

I would gladly pay $5 per trip if it would reduce traffic or fund construction of extra lanes. I wouldn’t even be mad if a couple of those bucks went toward the proposed Johnson-Linn passenger rail line, which I otherwise think is a terrible idea.

Only about 6,000 out of more than 4 million miles of U.S. roads have tolls, yet they generate billions annually and account for 5 percent of all highway revenue, according to figures from the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association. That group also says fatalities are three times greater on non-tolled roads.

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Several different toll road models are at work across the country. Washington, D.C. introduced a surge pricing system last year which have driven tolls as high as $47 during peak traffic. States also can use toll rates to get compensation from heavy vehicles which are responsible for the most wear and tear.

That represents the realization that roads are practically subsidies to the businesspeople who rely on them. Iowa’s expansive grid of rural roads was originally built to serve the agriculture industry, for example.

Most Iowans would probably say the government has a role to play in building adequate infrastructure to support commerce and a basic quality of life for citizens. Yet it’s also reasonable and necessary to ask users to pay their fair share.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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