Is it time for toll roads?

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Officials in Walworth and Rock counties say they are keeping an open mind to the possibility of charging tolls on the state's Interstate system.

Tolling is not the most popular idea, they say, but state highway needs and costs are increasing while revenues from traditional funding sources are decreasing.

"I was recently traveling on the Tri-State Toll Road in Illinois," Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl said. "It was absolutely seamless with no delays regarding tolling. The concept of open-road tolling seems reasonable, if a new source of funding is needed."

The Interstate system is crucial to economic development in Rock County, said Dan Cunningham, vice president of government relations at Forward Janesville.

"The current funding mechanism is not sustainable," Cunningham said. "Open-road tolling is an interesting idea and worthy of consideration."

The initial reaction to charging tolls on Wisconsin's Interstate system is "why add another expense to motoring?" Opponents also question whether tolls can be charged on highways built with federal funds.

Until recently, charging tolls in Wisconsin was a political third rail. Comparisons were made with the Illinois Tollway system and the traffic gridlock near toll plazas.

Two events changed the toll debate.

The Wisconsin gas tax, formerly indexed to go up with increases in the Consumer Price Index, came under attack as "taxation without representation." Former Assembly Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, dared Republican lawmakers in the majority to oppose his bill to end indexing.

"How could a Republican vote not to end a tax increase that occurs every year without a vote?" Black asked.

In the end, the Republican majority voted to end indexing. The likelihood of the Legislature voting to increase it is remote at best, so other forms of revenue to cover rising highway construction and maintenance costs are being explored.

The other transformational event in highway funding was the advent of open-road tolling. Unlike traditional toll systems that require motorists to stop and either drop coins into a bucket or pay an attendant, open-road tolling allows motorists equipped with a transponder to breeze past toll plazas, and the toll is electronically charged to their account.

Tolling is on the table as the Legislature considers highway funding. It's an issue before Gov. Scott Walker's Wisconsin Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy, although there's no indication the commission will recommend it.

"It's too early in the process to draw any conclusions about what the commission may or may not do," said Peg Schmitt, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman. "The commission is in the process of being briefed on many funding issues."

The federal government has strict rules prohibiting state tolling on highways constructed with federal funds, but there are exemptions. States must apply and compete for a limited number of exemptions. Slots for the exemptions remain, and Wisconsin could apply.

Bretl said a major concern for him and Walworth County is the effect open-road tolling could have on the funding formula for counties.

"We have a routine maintenance agreement that provided more than $2.5 million last year for highway maintenance in Walworth County," he said. "Each year the expectations of the motoring public increase, particularly with respect to winter maintenance. Our costs continue to rise."

Bretl said he wanted to know if toll road revenues would result in more or less funding for the counties.

"Will the new funding source generate enough revenue to maintain state roads?" he asked. "What happens to the gas tax?"

Would open-road tolling negatively affect economic development in southern Wisconsin?

Mike Van Den Bosch, executive director of the Walworth County Economic Development Alliance, said he didn't see a major problem.

"One concern we would have is whether tolling would have an adverse effect on tourism in Walworth County," Van Den Bosch said. "Our Illinois visitors are accustomed to tolling, so I don't see a problem there."

Van Den Bosch said he would like to see the state look into pay-as-you-go lanes designated for vehicles that pay for the use of commuter lanes.

"They are using the system in Florida and other states with success," he said. "I think it is an alternative to tolling that would see less resistance from Wisconsin motorists."

Cunningham said open-road tolling could boost economic development in Rock County.

"Look at all the development along I-90 into Illinois," he said. "Modern tolling indicates ‘top-of-the-top' infrastructure, and that sort of thing encourages and attracts development."

Critics of expanding highways in general say it is doubtful Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature will approve tolling.

"I just don't see it," said Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, a leading environmental advocate in the Legislature. "It's an unpopular idea."

"What we need is a serious discussion of what our overall transportation needs are and a look at funding options," Hulsey said. "Why are we proposing a $700 million bridge to Stillwater, Minn., that serves 386 people? I think we could do a lot more without the need to raise more money if we simply prioritized our basic needs."

Last updated: 7:49 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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