Politicians and the public responded swiftly last week to reports of possible highway tolls across the state. With apparently few exceptions, Iowans hate the idea.
The Iowa Department of Transportation recently released a study showing tolls along Interstate 80 could generate sufficient revenue for a major road makeover and lane expansion. Media reports about the study spread quickly and politicians’ disapproval followed quickly after.
Politicians from both parties, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, said they are not interested in pursuing tolls on Iowa roads. Even DOT Director Mark Lowe, whose staff conducted the study, was chilly to the idea, telling The Gazette, “It’s just not a good fit for a rural, farm to market state like Iowa.”
By contrast, we found a lot to appreciate in the DOT”s tollway study, which called for taking a careful and measured approach to the possibility of tolling, emphasizing the need for additional research.
“As tolling would be new for the State of Iowa, enacting tolling would be a significant change in transportation public policy. Therefore, possibly enacting tolls along rural I-80 requires careful and systematic consideration,” DOT staffers wrote in their report.
The DOT concept includes 11 automated tolling stations along rural portions of I-80, excepting in-town portions of Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Iowa City and Davenport.
With tolls of $0.08 per mile for automobiles and $0.24 per mile for big trucks, analysts expect the tolls could fully fund interstate maintenance and an expansion to six lanes.
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Tolls are increasingly common across the United States, paying for about half of all new highway lane construction over the past 20 years, according to one tally. President Donald Trump suggested in his national infrastructure plan earlier this year his administration would encourage the use of tolls.
Benefits include shifting road expenses to drivers, rather than taxpayers at large. And unlike fuel taxes, tolls impose equitable fees on gas vehicles and electric vehicles, which will only become more common on Iowa highways in the coming years.
Iowa would need new state laws and federal authorization before tolling could begin. The DOT study also acknowledges, “Some travelers may not be supportive of paying tolls for an improved I-80, in addition to current fuel taxes.”
We are not totally sold on the idea, but it is worthy of much more careful consideration than the political class is willing to grant.
Political fecklessness will not solve Iowa’s mounting transportation funding problems. Iowans love driving, we have a lot of roads and somebody has to pay for them.
More than 100,000 miles of roadways cover Iowa, among the most roads per-capita of any state, which is largely a product of the farm-to-market transport grid built to serve farmers. Our infrastructure earned subpar marks in the 2015 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, including D+ for bridges and C- for roads.
Modernizing Iowa’s road system will prove costly. A 2011 DOT study showed estimated Iowa would see a $1.6 billion funding shortfall over the following 20 years.
We hope Iowa leaders will not wait for a major infrastructure disaster before they get serious about road funding. When the Interstate 35 Mississippi River bridge collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, it killed 13 people and injured many more.
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State policymakers breaking the interstate speed limit to distance themselves from the tollway study also demonstrates a much broader problem with Iowa politics - the people in charge often seem afraid of taking on big, bold ideas which may be politically uncomfortable.
Recent history is filled with such examples, not least of which is the recent battle over increasing the gas tax. The rate sat unchanged for more than 25 years, despite business leaders and infrastructure advocates warning of insufficient funding.
Lawmakers finally passed the increase in 2015, but only after tense political bickering and some unique legislative maneuvering. Iowa’s roads are measurably and noticeably better for it.
Many Iowans have noticed a pattern in state government, a repetitive cycle of studies, recommendations and inaction. That may serve politicians fixated on their next election, but it does little to solve the very real problems Iowans face.
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