Op-Ed by NATHAN INKS
At the end of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, Doc Brown iconically tells Marty McFly, “Where we’re going we don’t need roads,” as they take off in the Delorean to warp to the year 2015. Unfortunately, flying Deloreans never become a reality, and Michiganders are still heavily reliant on roads.
Even worse than our lack of flying time machines is the fact that our roads have become increasingly bad over the past decade. Michigan’s roads have gone neglected for years, and it will take additional billions in funding to get them back in good condition.
It is time for Michigan’s leaders to seriously consider an idea that has been repeatedly rejected for decades—toll roads.
The official reason for Michigan’s lack of toll roads given by the Michigan Department of Transportation is that toll roads would not be “economically feasible as Michigan is off the nation’s heavily used east/west corridors” and that the absence of toll roads is “important to commerce, industry, tourism, and general economic development.”
Governor Snyder, in defending his opposition to toll roads, cited the history of the Interstate Highway System; generally, states are precluded from collecting tolls on Interstates and other federal-aid highways.
However, there are exceptions to this general prohibition, and recently, President Trump proposed abolishing the prohibition against collecting tolls on federal-aid highways. Even without such action, toll roads could be a viable source of road funding for Michigan.
Florida has already shown that toll roads can be successfully implemented on north-south highways in a state heavily reliant on tourism. Additionally, there are a number of east-west highways that Michigan could turn into viable toll roads.
Utilization of toll roads would also help ensure that those who drive more miles on Michigan roads pay more toward the repair and upkeep of the state’s roads. Traditionally, the method of ensuring this was the gas tax, but the increasing number of electric and hybrid vehicles has had an impact of the effectiveness of this approach. Although the gas tax still does a good job of countering the negative externalities associated with the use of fossil fuels, it is becoming an increasingly poor proxy for taxing drivers based on miles driven as the number of alternative fuel vehicles increases.
Toll roads—while not a perfect solution—would be a method of accounting for use of roads by drivers that does not miss electric and hybrid vehicles.
Michigan needs to drastically increase funding for the repair and maintenance of the state’s roads. For too long Lansing has dismissed the option of using toll roads, and this has been a mistake; Governor Snyder and the Legislature should take a serious look at converting some of our highways into toll roads.
The most successful toll road plan for the state would be one that includes federal-aid highways; President Trump’s position on this issue would be beneficial to states who are looking at toll roads as a new source of revenue for road funding. Our Congressional representatives should support such a proposal, and our state leadership should lobby for such a change.
Utilization of toll roads will not solve all of our road funding needs, but it would be a significant step in the right direction.