If you mention "toll roads" to the typical Wisconsin motorist, chances are good the reply will include an unflattering reference to Illinois and its 286 miles of pay-as-you-go interstate highways.

In bringing up the subject of toll roads for Wisconsin, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos knew he ran the short-term risk of reminding people of $2 tolls on the Tri-State Tollway and traffic jams for anyone not armed with an I-Pass.

Over time, however, the topic deserves more than a visceral reaction to Illinois' unofficial tax on Wisconsin drivers.

Wisconsin is hurtling toward a financial roadblock when it comes to constructing new roads and bridges and maintaining what's already in place. The state transportation fund is facing a shortfall of $4 billion to $6 billion over the next decade as roads and bridges age — just as gasoline and other fuel taxes are failing to keep pace.

"We should at least ask the federal government if we could have the option to explore a tollway in parts of Wisconsin where we could generate money from out-of-state tourists, and do it in a way that would hopefully pay for our roads," Vos told a WisPolitics.com luncheon this month in Madison. "I live in southeastern Wisconsin, where a lot of my constituents have an I-Pass. It's easy to use, it's convenient. So I'd like to have it at least be a part of the conversation."

You would think the Rochester Republican shot out the tires on someone's Prius. Knowing toll roads aren't popular, talk show hosts blasted the idea and other state politicians ducked for cover.

Still, in a state that depends on its highway system for commerce, tourism and much more, the idea of allowing toll roads — even if limited to a few interstate corridors — shouldn't be so casually dismissed.

Wisconsin agreed in the mid-1950s not to charge tolls on its portion of the interstate system in return for full federal funding of its construction. Two generations later, that deal is still in place, even if conditions have changed dramatically.

Today, Wisconsin has one of the highest state gasoline taxes in the nation. Its vehicle registration fees are in the middle of the 50-state pack, but that combination of revenue soon will not be enough to pay for maintenance and new construction.

Why? Fuel efficiency. Everyone should be happy today's cars are burning less gasoline; it's good for the environment, national security and conservation of what is still a finite resource, even as technology unlocks more domestic oil deposits.

Some cars aren't burning much gasoline at all. Hybrid vehicles and all-electric cars are here to stay, and their numbers will multiply. That will mean fewer fuel tax revenues over time, even if alternative fuels reach a scale that begins to replace more conventional fuels. No matter what type of fuel or alternative system is powering vehicles, however, they will always contribute to highway wear and tear.

Toll roads might be a part of the answer. Tolls could help pay for "hot lanes" planned for I-39/90 from Beloit to Madison, and eventually to Wisconsin Dells. Advantages include avoiding higher state fuel taxes, not tapping the state's general fund for transportation needs, negating the need to borrow and reducing dependence on federal aid at a time when Washington is broke. Tolls would allow construction projects to be planned and built faster.

Tolls also export a fair share of road maintenance costs to users from other states, which is not without political appeal.

Of course, tolls have drawbacks: There's the actual cost of collection, which would require booths, people and an electronic transponder system similar to I-Pass. It might distort traffic patterns, especially if motorists go out of their way to bypass them. And they're not popular. People don't like to stop to pay tolls, and it likely would take a while for Wisconsin drivers to embrace an I-Pass system, even though it's compatible with systems in about 15 other states.

Another solution is an annual "mileage fee" based on how far people drive, collected in some states when motorists renew their vehicle registrations. But that's a different type of toll because it's still a user fee.

Vos wasn't expecting kudos when he raised the idea of toll roads, and he certainly didn't receive any. He at least deserves credit, however, for thinking now about Wisconsin's looming highway fund crisis. Better now than before the car careens off a cliff.


Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Email: tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

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barefoot
barefoot

I think Culver's could double as a toll booth!

concerned_citizen
concerned_citizen

"Still, in a state that depends on its highway system for commerce, tourism and much more" - like campaign "contributions" from road building associations, oil corporations, and motor vehicle corporations.

WI state legislators have acted AGAINST fuel saving measures - because they are addicted to he gas tax revenue.

We need toll roads to end their addiction to gas tax revenue, however repulsive we find them. Talk about distorting the "free market"!?

Motor vehicles are very expensive - we need to find better ways to pay for their costs, including toll roads (and a $1/gallon tax to "support the troops" - it has been estimated that we actually pay $1/gallon to keep the Middle East oil fields "safe" for our consumption - why not pay that directly in a gas tax, rather than through a federal income tax - one that corporations and millionaires are all too good at avoiding? It's what a "free market" would actually look like.)


RecessionSux
RecessionSux

I am all for charging all of the Illinois people like they charge us to drive in their state. Also I would make all of the toilets in the rest areas "pay as you go" for them as well!

figarocat
figarocat

Tolls more or less accomplish the same thing as raising the gas tax, but at a higher net cost since you now have to pay for the tolling infrastructure and a whole new bureaucracy. Raising the gas tax to keep pace with increasing MPG is a viable option as long as vehicles use at least some gasoline, which is going to be the case for the foreseeable future. Why are some so-called conservatives being duped into thinking tolls are a good idea? Is it just because it doesn't include the word "tax" in it? If you'd rather pay an extra $110 in tolls instead of $100 in gas tax, please just move to Illinois and leave the rest of us alone.

thedude25
thedude25

River, I know and accept nothing of the kind.

River
River

Tolls in Wisconsin are only a matter of time. We all know it.

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Toll roads? TOLL ROADS!!??? TOLL ROADS!!!????

DIE!

DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE!

And haul your stinking corpse back to Illinois!

thedude25
thedude25

Another tax increase on people who can less afford it. Like raising the sales tax. Where's your tax cutting, GOP mania now Tommy???

8675309
8675309

Toll roads are a good idea because those who use the roads pay for them. Millions of Illinois tourist miles are driven every year on WI roads, particularly on I-90 from Beloit to Madison, and all of us are paying for their free ride. That stretch of road is going to cost $700M to expand in a few years. Why shouldn't those that use it most pay for it? Charging a toll is better than raising my property or income taxes.

kooler
kooler

maybe we should just lop off that lower s.e. corner of wisconsin and give it to illinois. kind of like removing a tumor to save the rest of the body.

Gary Charles
Gary Charles

and toll roads are not a new tax? duh?

Akklia
Akklia

Good grief, more & more like Illinois everyday. I realize they are all moving up here, taking over the south eastern part of the state where the back roads are all now 45 mph, but, where do those that no longer want to live in WI move to? Guess I'll start looking...just kidding. We are stuck here...

Figure out another way. No Toll Roads in WI, please.

Madravenspeak
Madravenspeak

Always the right wing cheerleader, Stills wants a regressive fee charged to the plebs already sucked dry by the oil companies every time we fill our gas tanks. Continue to regress, Wisconsin, on the right wing road to hell as the Republicans take over our public lands with guns, traps, violence and dead wildlife, and push the rest of us off the trails and the roads.