Finding funds in tolls and taxes

At the far end of the Capitol Raceway property in Crofton, out by the gravel pit, a big, ugly metal structure called a gantry frames a roadway used by the firm that runs the E-ZPass program to test toll-collection technologies.

The gantry and roadway are laden with technology - radio devices to pick up signals from transponders, cameras to record license plates at high speeds, sensors to count vehicle axles - that may be critical to the nation's transportation future. Each time a vehicle passes under the gantry, with no need to slow down or stop, a purple light flashes to signal that a simulated toll has been collected.


Reporters were summoned to this out-of-the-way test site by the U.S. Department of Transportation last week. The department wanted to publicize a new report that represents the Bush administration's blueprint for the next president to follow as he grapples with the looming implosion of the federal funding system that facilitates our travel from here to there and back again in the United States.

It's a voluminous document that carries the lofty title of "Refocus. Reform. Renew. A New Transportation Approach for America."


There are few surprises in the report. It basically summarizes what President Bush and Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters have been saying for years. Some of the ideas are laudable, such as consolidating 102 programs into eight and giving state and local authorities more flexibility in how they spend federal money.

But where the report falls flat is in dealing with the looming crisis of a roughly $4 billion shortfall in the highway trust fund expected when the current federal surface transportation authorization bill expires next year.

Basically, the report's conclusion on paying for infrastructure can be boiled down to: Gas tax bad; tolls good.

Now the report's critique of the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax is dead-on in some respects: It is, as the report says, unpopular. It provides a less-than-perfect approximation of any driver's usage of the road system. And as long as it remains at the same rate, it brings in a declining amount of revenue as people switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles or cut back on their driving.

Peters said last week that she isn't calling for immediate abolition of the current levy. But the Bush administration is going out the door as firmly opposed to raising the tax as it was coming in. And the report calls for a phasing-out of the federal reliance on fuel taxes as the primary means of financing transportation maintenance and improvements.

What the Bush administration is proposing as a replacement is what it calls "direct pricing of roads." Which is a nice way of saying tolls, even if they are collected without tollbooths.

Folks around here are not too worked up about tolls now because - let's face it - most of us don't pay too many of them. And those that do exist in the region are not that onerous. Crossing the Chesapeake Bay both ways for a measly $2.50 is a bargain.

It's when you start converting existing highways to tolls - as the report proposes - that the questions get sticky: Are we really better off abandoning the concept of a freeway? Isn't the toll-free nature of most of the Interstate Highway System something we like about President Eisenhower's legacy?


At the news conference in Crofton, Transportation Department official Paul R. Brubaker acknowledged that, in the future, American households might be looking at paying for their road usage in the form of a monthly bill.

Some families are doing that now with E-ZPass, but generally the charges aren't too steep and there are toll-free alternatives. But what happens when the family's highway usage bill starts reaching BGE proportions? What happens when Mom is so anxious to pick up the kids that she runs up high charges in the congestion-priced express lanes and Dad is the one paying the bills and second-guessing her choices? Maybe this system is fairer, but will it promote domestic harmony? Could it be there are worse ways than the hated gas tax to pay for transportation?

Even if we collectively decide tolling is the way to go, there are a lot of questions to confront. How deeply into the road system do we want to track usage? Just on interstates? Major arterials? State highways? Driveway to driveway?

And when all this information on where we've driven and when has been collected in some supercomputer, who gets access to that information? The nonpartisan Justice Department? The privacy-loving Maryland State Police?

Or maybe we lease our highways to private operators, as Indiana did with its toll road. But can we trust current elected officials - so dependent on their popularity in the present - to structure 99-year deals that won't be onerous to our great-grandchildren? Can we trust ourselves?

Then there's the question of toll-collection infrastructure. How many years will it take to install all of those ugly metal gantries on every tolled highway? How long to put a transponder or GPS system in every car? It won't be over the six-year life of the next federal authorization bill. Or the one after that.


So between now and our toll-driven future, how are we going to pay for maintenance of our roads and bridges and the increasingly necessary transit alternatives?

It's all well and good to present a vision for the long-term future, but as the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minnesota a year ago Friday showed, the near-term and mid-term matter.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said that one way or another we're going to have to pay for transportation.

"For the immediate future and to get us through this crisis that we face right now, the gas tax is the only horse we've got to ride," he said.

Or maybe bake sales?