Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to erect tolls on Interstate 95 near the North Carolina border has upset just about everybody — including ranking Republicans in the Statehouse and U.S. Senate hopeful George Allen.
The toll plan is just a stopgap measure expected to generate $35 million to $40 million a year. But as the politics heat up, the outrage masks a problem that promises only to get worse. With cars becoming increasingly fuel efficient, the gas tax isn't generating enough revenue to pay for costly road improvements. Pothole-riddled highways may be here to stay.
Some people say McDonnell's plan only highlights the problem because it takes the path of least resistance. The new tolls ($4 for cars and $12 for heavy trucks) are proposed on a section of highway where more than three-fourths of the traffic is from out of state.
"It's a terrible plan," says Peter Samuel, editor of TollRoadsnews.com, a website dedicated to all things tolls. "If you are going to be serious about tolling, you toll at a bunch of points and makes sure everybody pays."
Opponents say the tolls will add more stress to already economically depressed motorists in Southside Virginia. And it's been deemed unfair to tax one section of the state over another. (Never mind that the Virginia Department of Transportation is working on a discount tolling program for Virginia residents, much like the old coupon books for the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.)
But there's a solution, says George Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond. The most equitable solution is a GPS-based highway-user-tax system, which can bill motorists much like the electric company does (Here's his academic paper on the proposal). You pay for how much you use. By outfitting cars with transponders, similar to the EZ Pass system, motorists can be billed based on how much they drive, and where. It's the fairest form of taxation, Hoffer says.
"The gas tax in essence is our No. 1 user tax, and the problem with it is it's been around almost 90 years," Hoffer says. "But it's coming to the end of its useful life."
Why? It becomes an unfair tax burden on the poorest residents because they're least likely to be in position to purchase newer, more fuel-efficient cars. And it's foolish to count on the gas tax while cars get better mileage.
Ideally, going to a GPS-based system would allow for the removal of toll plazas, and that would reduce congestion everywhere.
"Both the left and the right are opposed to it because of this perceived intrusion on privacy," Hoffer says. But with GPS already in cars in a variety of ways — including in toll transponders and cell connections to OnStar — "I think this position is somewhat irrational," he says. "The horse is already out of the barn."