Let's convert Interstate 80 to a toll road

Friday, June 14, 2019

Millions of travelers have passed through Nebraska on their way somewhere else, from early Spanish explorers looking for the fountain of youth to French fur traders, 49ers, Mormons on their way to Utah and wagon trains en route to Oregon and California. Many of those who chose to live on the Plains have tried to find ways to profit from the traffic, building trading posts, road ranches, Pony Express stations, Stuckey’s franchises and Kearney’s Archway Monument.

Thousands of trucks and cars pass through Nebraska every day; what’s keeping us from collecting a few bucks from every vehicle, even if it’s only to maintain the highway? After all, one can’t drive to Denver International, Chicago or Oklahoma without paying a toll.

Well, there’s federal law, for one thing. States are allowed to toll interstates if they were toll roads before they became part of the national interstate network, but they can’t impose tolls on previously toll-free interstate highways built with federal money.

There are exceptions; we could, for example, charge for a newly added carpool lane, or apply for an exception.

Wait, pay to drive to Lincoln on the interstate? No way!

Sorry, friend, but you’re already paying to drive on I-80, and every other highway, through your fuel taxes, which seem like a fair way to fund upkeep of the roads. Unfortunately, however, those fuel taxes and fees cover only about half of the cost of roads, with the average family paying more than $1,000 a year in taxes and indirect costs over and above gas taxes and other fees, according to a 2015 report (http://bit.ly/2Zqguok) from a think tank. Increasing fuel efficiency and alternative-fuel vehicles have already cut deeply into fuel tax receipts. and the situation can only get worse as new technologies come online.

But won’t a toll force more traffic onto alternative routes, — like U.S. 6-34 through McCook and others?


Such a move would help counterbalance the tendency for economic development to concentrate along the interstate at the expense of other regions of the state.

Businesses along the alternative routes would welcome more business — we’ll soon have a “super 2” ready to serve drivers who decide to turn south on U.S. 83 toward McCook.

And, travelers who stay on I-80 should be happy to pay a few dollars to enjoy a less-congested four-lane. Lawmakers in the recent session struggled to deal with budgetary problems that are small compared to others looming on the horizon, such as expanded Medicaid, continued need for property tax relief, overcrowded prisons, school funding and many other issues.

Solving those problems will take some outside-of-the-box thinking, which might just include additional revenue from one of Nebraska’s biggest assets.

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