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Could Interstate Tolls Finally Bring Americas Roads & Bridges Up To Speed?

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Toll plaza with E-ZPass on the Spaulding Turnpike near Rochester, NH (via Wikimedia user Fletcher6)

Toll plaza with E-ZPass on the Spaulding Turnpike near Rochester, NH (via Wikimedia user Fletcher6)

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America's roads and bridges are in terrible shape.

The American Society of Civil Engineers assigned our roads a grade of D-minus, and Pew Research has rated a third of them substandard. At least 25 percent of our bridges are crumbling, desperately in need of repair, with more than 20,000 judged "fracture critical".

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

The problem is, of course, that the U.S. hasn't allotted money to fix and upgrade its infrastructure. In 2012, Congress passed a Surface Transportation Bill -- which then-Transportation Secretary called "the worst transportation bill I've ever seen" -- but that provided just enough money for upkeep, not improvement. Worse, it's getting ready to expire.

The bill and the infrastructure repairs it authorized were funded in large part by the federal gas tax. When that tax was implemented in 1993, it seemed sensible: more gas sales mean more wear and tear on roads, but also more revenue for upkeep. 

Unfortunately, the federal gas tax was set at 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel 21 years ago, and it hasn't been raised since. Thanks to inflation, gas taxes pay for about half the repairs that they did back then.

HOW DO WE FIX IT?

The Obama administration has drafted a plan to address the nation's infrastructure problem. According to the New York Times, the president has sent a proposal to Congress that, among other things, would eliminate the ban on interstate tolls that's been in place since 1956. All told, the plan could generate as much as $87 billion for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.

That sum is still far, far less than the trillion of dollars needed over the next six years to bring bridges up to snuff (never mind roads), but it could be a start.

Naturally, the proposal has supporters (like the lobbying industry for toll companies) and detractors (like trucking companies). The proposal is so new that we haven't heard much from politicians yet, but we can guess where most of them will stand.

OUR TAKE

The proposal's chances for success aren't great, given Washington's fractious environment. Those on the left will applaud it as a sensible, "pay to play" fee, affecting only those who use interstates (which is basically everyone). Those on the right will denounce it as a tax by another name, insisting that ample funds for infrastructure maintenance can be generated by cutting costs elsewhere in the federal government (except the defense budget, of course).

The X factor at work here is the fact that infrastructure isn't sexy, so it doesn't typically inspire the passionate debate that other topics do -- topics like immigration, for example. That could improve the chances of Obama's proposal sliding through unnoticed, without generating much discussion.

However, it's more likely that the proposal will be pushed aside so that legislators can focus on bills that their constituents really care about. Not that those proposals will pass either -- after all, immigration reform is hugely volatile, and even it has stalled for the forseeable future -- but they allow politicians to grandstand, win media coverage, and boost their credentials with supporters. Heading into the mid-term election cycle, that's very, very important.

Bottom line: you can hope that our elected officials will reach some sort of compromise, but don't hold your breath. 

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