Obama transportation proposal would OK tollways, but unlikely in Iowa

State legislation would be needed to allow toll roads in Iowa.

Traffic travels along Interstate 380 just north of Swisher during the evening rush hour on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in (Li
Traffic travels along Interstate 380 just north of Swisher during the evening rush hour on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

A federal transportation proposal would remove restrictions on toll booths on federal roads, which could provide states like Iowa a new revenue stream to pay for road and bridge work.

However, Iowa officials say even if President Barack Obama’s four-year $302 billion transportation plan is approved, it’s unlikely Iowa would take advantage, at least not right away.

“The consensus today is that tolling doesn’t make sense in Iowa but that it could as technology evolves,” said Stuart Anderson, director of the Planning, Programming and Modal Division at the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Anderson said the state has a $215 million shortfall in the transportation system, but tolling isn’t the solution because it is unlikely to be profitable.

Toll booths require millions of dollars of upfront construction, staffing, administration and maintenance coupled with insufficient daily traffic counts in Iowa, Anderson said. Plus, people may change their traffic patterns to avoid toll roads and overburden other roads, he said.

Iowa has discussed tollways on and off in the past several years.

Anderson pointed to a 2007 DOT study based on a toll road on U.S. 20 in western Iowa that showed a toll system in Iowa would operate with a deficit of about $42 million. A 2011 DOT report to the Legislature about road-use taxes also cast a negative light on toll roads in Iowa.

As technology for automated tolls and transponders improves and becomes more standardized across the country, it could lower the costs to installing tollways, Anderson said.

Joseph Henchman, president of State and Legal Project for the Tax Foundation, which conducts research on tax policy, said tolls are a better alternative to funding transportation with higher income and sales taxes.

“Relying more on tolls and less on general revenues means those who benefit from good transportation pay directly for it, like any other service,” Henchman said in a news release from the Tax Foundation.

But, even if Congress passed the bill and technology advances made it make sense economically in Iowa, there still would be a political hurdle.

Iowa lawmakers would need to pass legislation to allow tollways. Currently, only state border river bridges can have tolls in Iowa.

“Even the introduction level, it’s a hard sell,” said Rep. Brian Moore, R-Bellevue, who is vice chairman of the transportation committee. “It’s hard selling raising costs to begin with, and then talk about adding tolls, no one is interested in it.”

Moore supports an additional gas tax as the best solution to close the gap in transportation funding.

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