Motorists seem to have acquiesced to the idea of chipping in to build major new roadways. From the Dulles Greenway in suburban Washington to State Route 91 in Orange County, Calif., thousands slow each day to toss coins into a basket for the privilege of driving on a spiffy new road.
But Americans may feel differently about paying tolls on roads that have always been free to use.
Under a White House proposal currently moving through Congress, states for the first time would be free to collect tolls on existing interstate freeways. The plan would reverse a law in effect since 1956, when the interstate freeway system was conceived, that prohibited toll collecting on roads that had been built with federal money.
"In general, the public has not had any problem with toll roads as long as they had a free alternative," says Ken Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corp., a transportation consulting firm here. "What the administration is doing here, they would actually turn the free alternative into a paying alternative. There would be no other alternative."
The Clinton administration's toll proposal, part of the $175 billion National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act, is intended to help local officials raise revenue to repair a crumbling highway infrastructure.
No recent poll data are available on the nation's feelings about tolls, but signs of discontent are apparent. The conservative Union Leader newspaper in Manchester, N.H., editorialized this week that the Clinton idea "is plain old highway robbery."
The American Automobile Association, too, adamantly opposes the provision. "We are getting calls from citizens outraged," reports AAA's Bill Jackman. He says that the interstate highway system was established with the promise of being self sustaining, and that tolls amount to double taxation.
In fact, taxpayers already shell out a couple of dollars for highway maintenance each time they gas up their vehicles. The price of a gallon of gasoline includes an 18.3-cent federal fuel tax, and states tack on their own taxes. The national average is 21 cents a gallon.
The proposal has also met some resistance on Capitol Hill. "It's primitive. You are slowing down tons of steel to throw 35 cents into a plastic catch basket," says Jeff Nelligan, spokesman for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Moreover, money accruing from gasoline taxes, which goes into the Highway Trust Fund, is not being spent to fix roads and bridges, he says. "The $23 billion [surplus in the fund] is being used to mask the size of the [federal budget] deficit, but it can only be spent on infrastructure."
WASHINGTON currently spends roughly $35 billion a year on upkeep of the federal highway system. That figure will likely jump to $53 billion a year between 1998 and 2002, according to Federal Highway Administration estimates. The increase does not include another $72 billion that some FHA officials say should be spent on improvements not included in annual maintenance.
In light of those predictions, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer Downey says the administration is trying to help state and local governments. "We would like to see states have the ability to make these decisions," he says.
The International Bridge, Toll and Tunnel Association, which represents the toll industry, agrees. "Tolls make sense in certain cases," says Neil Schuster, the group's director. "A toll is a user fee and not a tax. If you are charging a toll, you are giving the motorist either a road that was not there, a better ride, or a safer road," he says.
States and localities have worked to modernize collection practices on existing toll roads. In some places, electronic scanners at the tolls read special devices fitted into cars. Drivers no longer have to fish for cash or coins each time they pass a toll, but pay their total bill at a later time.
States have also experimented with various types of tolls, such as charging higher tolls for cars with a single occupant in an effort to price such motorists off the road.
"I see a possible trend toward ... conversion of existing HOV [high occupancy vehicle] lanes into toll lanes, where carpools still travel free of charge," says Mr. Orski.