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Freeways no longer?

Apr 20, 2012 - By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The federal interstate highway system is showing its age, and, faced with the cost of repairing all those bumps and cracks, some states want to ask motorists to pay tolls on roads that used to be free.

That's the last thing a public that's paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline wants to hear, and elected officials, from members of Congress to President Barack Obama, aren't likely in an election year to propose that motorists pay higher gasoline taxes or tolls. But many transportation experts and officials agree that if Americans want to drive on good roads, they're going to have to pay more for them, or do without.

Most of the 46,000-mile interstate system has been toll-free for its 56-year history. But pavement and bridges on the system's oldest sections are reaching the ends of their life spans and need to be replaced. A 2009 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recommended an annual investment in U.S. highways and bridges of $166 billion.

"Highways are not designed to last forever," said Bob Poole, a Florida-based transportation policy expert and supporter of tolls at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research group in Washington. "There is a major need over the next two decades or so to rebuild and modernize the entire interstate system."

Since 2005, the federal Department of Transportation has given Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia approval to toll some of the nation's busiest interstate highways for the purpose of improving them or rebuilding them. Transportation officials in these states say that given the enormous costs of such projects, they have few viable alternatives.

When the interstate system was created in 1956, a federal per-gallon gasoline tax was enacted to provide a stream of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. The federal government paid 90 percent of the construction costs, with the states making up the rest.

That model worked for decades, but no longer. Americans are driving less because of the economy and higher gas prices, and cars are getting better gas mileage. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn't changed since 1993.

In recent years, the trust fund has required an annual infusion of general funds just to keep highway spending levels where they are. The Congressional Budget Office said in January that the trust fund might go bankrupt next year.

"We're trying to run a 2012 transportation system on 1992 revenue," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It's a bad mismatch."

But increasing the tax even to adjust for inflation is a tough sell. The cost of gasoline has come up as an issue in the current and past presidential elections, with Democrats and Republicans blaming high prices on whoever's in the White House.

"At some point, lawmakers are going to have to find some backbone and say 'aye' to new transportation revenues," Anderson said.

Stalled legislation in Congress to fund transportation projects for the next two to five years doesn't even begin to fix the problem. No current bill, experts warn, adequately addresses the needs of an outdated and deteriorating national highway system.

"The proper cost of using high-quality roads is to pay what they cost," said Poole, who's advised four presidents of both parties on transportation issues. "We haven't been doing that for quite a while in this country."

Polls find that road improvements take a back seat to other public issues. A Pew Research Center study found in January that only 30 percent of Americans named transportation as a top policy priority.

"We have a huge contradiction," Anderson said. "They want better roads; they want mass transit. They want us to do something about congestion. But when we ask them about paying for it, it kind of falls apart."

Meanwhile, states are hardly in a position to pick up the tab.

Adding new lanes and rebuilding interchanges on nearly 200 miles of I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City, one of the oldest segments of interstate in the country, is a priority. But with a price tag of $2 billion to $4 billion, it's also something Missouri can't afford.

Bob Brendel, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said that each penny of Missouri's 17-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax brought in about $28 million.

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