What's Up With That? State tolling cleared way for feds to follow suit

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Back in the late 40s and early ’50s, when the Interstate Highway System was being developed, I vaguely remember being told that it would be a non-toll road system and that construction, improvements and maintenance would be a federal obligation paid for through taxes. Am I mistaken? Has there been legislation to allow tolls on interstate highways? Are there other sections of the national system that have been tolled? Tolls paid for the second bridge across the Columbia but that was when it was still Highway 99. Now that it is a part of the Interstate Highway System, can tolls be justified?

— Ray, Salmon Creek

Ray, your vague memory is pretty sharp -- maybe a little too sharp. Perhaps you’re recalling that classic 1939 report to Congress by the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads called “Toll Roads and Free Roads”?

According to the Federal Highway Administration website and its fun and informative “Highway History” section, the 1939 report advised against financing interstate road construction through tolling because it just wouldn’t raise enough money -- partly because of “the traffic-repelling tendency of the proposed toll-road system.” Motorists would simply find ways to circumvent the tolls and still get where they were going, the report concluded.

But the new, tolled Pennsylvania Turnpike quickly undermined that conclusion. “It was an instant financial success” from the moment it opened on Oct. 1, 1940, the FHA says, and other states were eager to follow suit. Each state established a legal toll authority, allowing it to issue bonds for road construction and operation, and to repay the bondholders from toll revenues.

After the end of World War II, tolled turnpikes started appearing everywhere from Connecticut to Virginia, often as parts of what was already envisioned as early as 1947 as a national highway system, and built without any federal funds at all.

In 1956, Congress authorized absorbing these highway sections, tolls and all, into the new Interstate system, and to expand that system with revenues from existing and new tolls -- as well as federal highway funds. The expansion included what you call the “second bridge” over the Columbia, Ray -- we think you mean the second span of Interstate 5. (Both spans were tolled to pay for construction. The first opened in 1917 and cost pennies per car, or horse, until 1928; the second span opened in 1958, and both were tolled at 20 cents per car from 1960 until 1966).

Today, dozens of pieces of the Interstate system -- whether sections of road or individual bridges and tunnels -- are tolled in states from Florida to Massachusetts and Kansas to California. Federal law has grown far more flexible about mixing and matching toll revenues and federal highway funds. (The Bureau of Public Roads was absorbed by the Federal Highway Administration in 1967.)

Just because the Columbia River Crossing is part of the Interstate Highway System, Ray, there’s no legal prohibition against tolling it. Whether you feel tolls can be truly “justified” is, well, up to you.--Scott Hewitt

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