This year the Interstate Highway System celebrates its 50th anniversary, a milestone that shouldn't go unheralded by trucking. While trucks existed long before the Interstate System began in 1956, it's safe to say creation of the Interstates also created the trucking industry that now anchors this country's highly productive distribution network.
Today the “I” roads connect every major population area in every one of the lower 48 states. They certainly have their problems with congestion and condition, but taken as a whole the Interstate System is the foundation of our economic strength. In ways both good and bad, life in the United States has been shaped by what we now recognize as a visionary highway plan.
But that's history. It might be interesting, but far more important is what happens next to keep the Interstates open and moving. Recently a lobbying group called the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn. (IBTTA) held a forum on just that topic with 15 participants representing a broad range of highway users, builders, financers and regulators, as well as the ubiquitous industry consultants. As might be expected, they had a variety of predictions about what will happen to the Interstate System in the coming years. However, as a group they also held some common ideas about how the Interstates should evolve.
Since IBTTA represents entities that collect tolls, it's no surprise that most of those ideas centered around paying for highways. One characteristic of the Interstates, at least for their first 50 years, is that they are generally free of tolls. Instead, fuel taxes are used to pay for the roads. If the IBTTA experts are right, though, that formula could be history as well.
Instead of fuel taxes, the forum members believe it's time to adopt a per-mile charge for all highway users to finance and build new roadways. While such a radical change might make some in trucking nervous, it actually could prove to be a good thing for the industry if it's applied fairly to everyone who travels on those roads.
First, it could go a long way to addressing growing congestion problems. With the technology in place to levy per-mile charges, those charges could be varied based on time of day to help manage traffic capacity. Users less sensitive to time could opt to save money by shifting to less congested times, thereby improving traffic flow for all. “Cordon pricing” like that used already in central London, could also be put in place, setting a defined price for access to major cities.
Similarly, a universal collection technology would make it relatively simple to establish dedicated truck lanes or truck-only toll lanes, another of the forum's concepts for future highways. In all of these scenarios, instead of bearing unpredictable congestion, fleets could decide for themselves whether the cost of access or faster transit times are worth it.
While trucks certainly roll up a lot of miles compared to individual automobiles, current fuel tax structures shift an unduly large share of that cost to commercial vehicles. An unbiased pay-per-mile approach might finally address that inequity, while also giving us the funds to celebrate a happy 100th anniversary for the Interstate System.