Tax or Toll?

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Looking for a road less traveled?

Forget it, there are none. America’s highways are under siege from too much traffic and too few funds. Repairs need to be made. New roads need to be built. But should they be financed with taxes or tolls?

Over the years both methods have been tried.

Toll roads date back to the horse and buggy days of the late 1700s. The first state to collect a user’s fee was Pennsylvania with the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. By the time automobiles made the scene in the early 1900s, tolls were being collected on many bridges, tunnels and roads.

The end of World War I found the government planning a nationwide highway system, mostly for defense purposes. Building began in earnest after the end of World War II, when a large segment of the population moved to the suburbs. Funding was a mix of taxes and tolls.

In 1956 the Federal-Aid Highway Act attempted to provide toll-free funding by increasing the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. Toll roads still existed—in fact, the Federal-Aid Highway Act included a provision that toll roads, bridges and tunnels could be built if they met system standards—but no more were planned.

For many years Americans enjoyed a free, coast-to-coast highway system. Today, with free roads in disrepair and less dollars in public coffers to fix them, toll roads are once again gaining favor.

Those who want toll roads believe the timing is right. Technology has done away with the stop and go nuisance of paying tolls, and studies have shown most taxpayers oppose a higher tax on gasoline and diesel fuel.

However, free road fans argue taxpayers are already paying more than enough in gasoline and diesel fuel tax to maintain and build new highways, that there are too many bridges, tunnels and roads with never-ending fees, and that tolls have become just another hidden tax.

When the dust settles, the result could be a mix of toll and free roads, funded by federal, state, local and private partnerships.

Which may still leave some of us trying to find a road less traveled—or maybe just one we can travel freely.

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