If I asked “Would you like to pay more tolls?” you’d almost certainly answer, “No.” But the wiser answer is, “It depends. What would I get for this?”
What Georgia residents could get is better interstate highways — and there is probably no other realistic way to bring that about. Georgia’s interstate highways are the state’s most important transportation infrastructure. They account for less than 3 percent of all highway lane-miles but handle 26 percent of all vehicle miles traveled.
Georgia ranks 23rd out of 50 states for the condition of its rural interstates and second-best in the country for the condition of its urban interstates. So what’s the problem?
Good maintenance can do only so much. Major highways are built with a design life of 50 years. Many of Georgia’s interstates are nearing that mark and will need substantial reconstruction over the next two decades. And Georgia’s urban interstates are notoriously congested; nearly 47 percent of lane-miles are congested on any given day.
Why isn’t more money being spent on these vital arteries? Georgia’s main highway funding source is a combination of federal and state fuel taxes, but neither has been increased since the early 1990s. Between inflation and increased fuel economy, these gas taxes produce less than half as much real revenue per mile driven as they did two decades ago. Under new federal mileage standards, new cars must go twice as far on a gallon of gas by 2025, so per-gallon fuel taxes will produce far less revenue by then.
That explains why Georgia and other growing states can afford routine highway maintenance, but can’t afford to spend much on widening heavily congested corridors or rebuilding worn-out highways.
Georgia needs to replace per-gallon fuel taxes with some form of charging per mile driven. Such a funding source already exists on I-85’s express lanes. All-electronic tolling is simple, inexpensive to collect and a proven method for financing major highway investments. It would provide an ideal funding source for rebuilding and modernizing Georgia’s ailing interstates, replacing per-gallon fuel taxes.
The Reason Foundation’s new nationwide study assessed the feasibility of using electronic tolling as the funding source to modernize the interstates of all 50 states. Georgia faces a major reconstruction bill over the next 20 years: $26 billion. It also has a substantial widening need, estimated at $19 billion.
Most states, including Georgia, could pay for the needed reconstruction/widening of interstates with an average toll of 3.5 cents per mile for cars and 14 cents per mile trucks. This toll would replace gas taxes for all interstate travel.
With tolling, needed high-dollar projects can be financed based on the projected toll revenue stream. The huge backlog of improvements in Georgia could be in place much sooner than under the pay-as-you go system the Georgia Department of Transportation uses for highways.
Georgia, like all other states, needs to phase out the declining 20th-century fuel tax and replace it with a revenue source that will keep pace with growth.
Robert Poole is director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.