For decades (yes, going back to the 1980s), a solution to highway funding has loomed over endless and fruitless debates about the gas tax, registration fees, borrowing and federal transportation revenue.
Three words, folks: open road tolling.
Initially, the issue was simply tolling. Remember when you drove up to a toll station and a snarly toll road employee fumed if you asked for change or a receipt? Remember rolling up to the toll bucket into which you threw change? How many times did a quarter go rolling away? By the way, it was always raining when this happened.
Wisconsin residents smugly claimed superiority over Illinois folks. To get out of Chicago, you were forced to pay tolls, but once you hit the Wisconsin state line, everyone was free to motor around unencumbered by tolling.
Cheeseheads looked down on flatlanders. Wisconsin respected a motorist’s right to drive around as free as the Thunderbird 292 engine in Bill Pember’s 1955 mint metallic green Ford Custom two-door coupe (Bill called it a coo-pay.) Bill didn’t drive his car; he aimed it. It was what he called a loaded weapon on wheels.
When Bill was roaming the highways or Randall Avenue to McDonald’s during ridiculously short Janesville Senior High lunch breaks, he traveled at a high rate of fuel consumption. But, in spite of a disregard for EPA issues, Bill knew he could fill up with the money he saved by avoiding toll roads in Illinois.
Fast forward to today and most of the fun associated with driving is long gone. Vehicles are powered by puny four-cylinder engines getting 40 miles per gallon. The Dodge Hellcat is an exception, but a topic for a later day.
Some drivers engage in what’s called hypermiling. It requires a light foot on the gas and never, ever, squeal the tires taking off from a stoplight.
This is all related to toll roads. If you want high miles per gallon, use open road tolling. You can breeze through the toll plaza saving all kinds of time and fuel and—get this—the tolls are cheaper than if you stopped to visit Nurse Ratched in the toll booth.
The key here is open road tolling as opposed to stopping at toll booths to deposit cash. Open road tolling employs a transponder that records your trips through toll plazas. The tolls are deducted from your account, which can be set up with a credit card.
There are charter members of the Flat Earth Society who moan about tolling, open road tolling and, while they’re at it, roundabouts.
A friend of mine, the radio host John Sylvester, also known as Sly, believes tolling is an evil government program directed at commuters. He has not considered that commuters are not required to toll and can take the long way around on two-lane highways and roads. If time is not important to a commuter, this sounds like a good option.
Others insist that tolling is a government surveillance trap to keep an eye on law-abiding citizens. Here’s a news flash: If you have a cellphone, they know where you are at all times.
Republicans who control both houses of the Legislature have come around on tolling. They pray at the altar of “no new taxes,” and open road tolling is a far better option that a gas tax increase. Tolling is a pure user fee. If you don’t want to pay tolls, don’t drive on toll roads.
It seems obvious that the feds will sign off on tolling in Wisconsin. More tolling means less dependence on federal funding.
All it will take is for Gov. Tony Evers to sign off on the idea. Stay tuned.