1/6/2017Wisconsin Officials Promote Tolling
Wisconsin officials create a roadmap for generating $46 billion in revenue through tolls on existing interstate highways.
Just before the New Year's holiday, officials at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) dropped a report exploring the ways in which the state could turn a profit by imposing tolls on its highways. Wisconsin lawmakers requested the document, which estimated that a 12 cent-per-mile charge for the use of existing interstates could generate $46 billion in revenue by 2050. There is one hitch in the plan, however.
"Tolling on Interstate highways is not currently authorized by state law, and would require an affirmative change in state law to begin to collect tolls," the report noted.
The state constitution explicitly bans the diversion of transportation revenue. This provision, adopted by 80 percent of voters in 2014, requires that funds raised from motorists be used to pay off transportation bonds or to fund transportation programs that can only be administered by WisDOT. The money may not be diverted to other uses.
Some state lawmakers have insisted that tolling is the only option because gasoline tax revenue is falling. The numbers in WisDOT's report say otherwise. Gas tax revenue jumped 7.2 percent from 2006 to 2017, despite a deep economic recession. For the 2017 budget cycle, gas taxes will generate $1 billion and vehicle taxes another $700 million needed to cover the $1.9 billion spent on "transportation" -- which includes millions spent on transit. Transit costs have spiraled out of control.
"Across Wisconsin transit operating costs have increased and the share of state aids for operating support has already declined," the report notes.
The report explored funding alternatives. A one-cent increase in the gas tax would generate $320 million in profit over ten years, while indexing the gas tax to inflation would generate as much revenue as imposing a four-cent-per-mile toll on every interstate. By comparison, WisDOT's calculations show tolling would involve significant overhead costs. Between 26 and 58 cents out of every dollar collected from drivers would be devoted to the processing of toll payments -- money that in other states would go to the foreign-owned corporations in charge of the roads. Since Wisconsin law prohibits such outsourcing, WisDOT proposed two ways to achieve the legislature's goals within constitutional boundaries.
"Expanding the authority of WisDOT is arguably the most legally defensible approach for implementing tolling on the Wisconsin Interstate system," the report explains.
The other option would be to create a "quasi independent" entity within WisDOT that would be subject to fewer legal restrictions, such as limitations on excessive salaries. An independent board would also operate outside the level of public oversight that might balk at the expected toll rates. The report shows a one-way trip from Oconomwoc to Hudson on Interstate 94 could cost $33.60. A ride from Madison to La Crosse on Interstate 90 could cost $15.48. From Wauwatosa to Greenbay on Interstate 41 could run $15.
"If a board is contemplated, members should be appointed and not elected," the report recommended. "This helps insulate difficult toll rate increase decisions, which may be required to meet bond covenants, from undue political pressure."
A copy of the report is available in a 350k PDF file at the source link below.