Wisconsin, Minnesota consider tolls on highways

The Republican view on the nation’s infrastucture is becoming a little more clear this week, dubbed by President Trump as “infrastructure Week”: If you use it, you’ll pay for it.

On Monday, the president announced he wants to privatize air traffic control, a system that actually works fine now, despite what you’ve heard. It’s a move that most likely will usher in user fees on pilots, both commercial and non-commercial.

Now, KSTP’s Tom Hauser reports, the Republican Legislature wants to study the idea of toll roads in Minnesota. The request for a study was tucked into the transportation finance bill and is to be completed by the next session.

Minnesota has the fifth-largest highway system in the country, and its citizens have historically hated the idea of tolls, even though every few years someone wants to study the idea.

The obvious candidate would be I-90 across southern Minnesota. But federal law currently prohibits states and the federal government from adding tolls on existing interstate highways.

Of the 46,730-mile interstate system, about 2,900 miles are tolled.

It seems likely, however, that the Trump administration would favor letting states decide the question, even though that would require it to acknowledge that President Barack Obama thought the same thing.

Trump ally Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, would seem to think it likely. Yesterday, Walker said he could live with the idea of turning some Wisconsin highways into toll roads on the Illinois border, the idea being to use money generated by Illinois residents to reduce the gas tax for Wisconsinites.

Some lawmakers in Wisconsin want the Minnesota border to be tolled too, although a 2013 congressional agency study warned this sort of thing could spark a toll war between states.

“An unsettled question is whether schemes that impose highway tolls only at state borders, and not within the state, contravene the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which reserved the power to ‘regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states’ to Congress,” the Congressional Research Service said.

  • Al

    Would a toll on state/local highways push traffic to interstates (where possible)? (Is that the point?)

    • Geezer44

      No, Al, it isn’t. It’s simply the Republicans are in the majority right now in the state legislature. This subject just comes up when they are in the majority. Only reason!

  • Rob

    If they upped the I-90 speed limit to 80 mph or higher, I’d be O.K. with paying a toll…

    • Geezer44

      Most folks go that speed now. Just sayin’……

      • Rob

        Yes! But then I could be irresponsible and drive about 8 mph over the new limit. ; )

  • MrE85

    I see little chance toll roads will happen in Minnesota. We just don’t like them, nor do we need them We need a state legislature with the courage to raise the gas tax.

    “If you use it, you’ll pay for it.”

    That’s how the gas tax works. Now that electric vehicle owners are paying an extra fee for not destroying the world we all live on, that matter is settled, too.

    No more speeches on how a few more cents at the pump with “hurt the poor,” “kill jobs” or “harm the economy.” That’s all nonsense and we all know it.

    Just do it, then let’s more on to other issues.

    • What’s your fallback plan? :*)

      • MrE85

        I’m stockpiling canned food, ammo and beer.

      • Jerry

        That’ll happen at about the same time as people read more than just the headline before commenting.

    • Paul

      We already have toll roads in MN – they are called MNPass.

      • MrE85

        In a sense, you’re right. But we are thinking of the type of roads that don’t give you any choice on if you pay or not.

        • Paul

          Ah, yes – good point.

          The thruways in NY are nicely done, where you pay to enter/exit rather than checkpoints along the way like IL.

      • Those are toll lanes.

    • cecc0011

      The thing is, the gas tax and tolls do different things, even if the revenue could be used the same way.

      Gas taxes are a broad way of charging drivers based on how much they drive, and to a much lesser extent how much wear and tear they do on roads. Heavier vehicles generally use more gas per mile, so it kind of works. Gas taxes can also be used as a tax on emissions (carbon, pollutants like VOx/NOX/etc), but since the MN gas tax doesn’t even cover all the cost of road infrastructure and the revenue is constitutionally dedicated to building/maintaining roads, it’s not doing much in the way of de-incentivizing pollution. I think there’s a good argument for using the gas tax as a pollution tax, indexed to some social cost of carbon/pollutant, with the proceeds going toward programs that mitigate pollution’s impact on people.

      Tolls charge users for both the place and time of their driving. A dynamically priced toll on an interstate (or state highway) can be used as a congestion mitigation tactic (higher prices at peak times give incentive to leaving earlier or later, carpooling, or using another mode like express buses, all of which makes traffic move faster at all times) and they are specific to the road driven on. So while toll revenue *could* be put into a general road fund pot, it could also be used to make mobility improvements to the corridor where people travel. This could be widening the highway, or ensuring top-notch pavement condition, or improving roads that lead to the highway itself. Or it could be used to build and operate highway BRT (or other transit) on or near the road, build more pedestrian overpasses to reduce the impacts of urban highways, or other things that give alternatives to people who are impacted by a toll’s cost.

      Tolls have proven very effective where used. They also are quite popular, particularly in places where the public wasn’t keen on the idea pre-implementation. And note this isn’t an argument for privatizing those facilities; the DOT can easily manage implementation and operation.

      • MrE85

        The heaviest vehicles on the roads are usually the diesel tractor-trailers, which have a weight-based payment system of their own.

        Not sure that kind of taxes are in place for those who drive lighter diesel vehicles (there are not many, especially after VW emissions scandal).

    • RBHolb

      Gas taxes are generating less revenue these days. Cars are more fuel efficient, and people are driving fewer miles.

  • Jerry

    They do realize this would hurt their traditional constituencies more than their opponent’s, right?

    • Jerry

      I also wonder why you would want to discourage people from outside the state from spending money in your state.

      • MrE85

        Plus, there are these kind of problems. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj4MEGi-OyQ

        • Not a factor since toll booths aren’t required on toll roads anymore

          • MrE85

            Someone needs to tell Illinois that. I don’t go through that way enough to merit an autopay gizmo.

            But I did notice that most people do. Only a couple of booths open to those of us who still use cash.

          • Massachusetts just knocked down all the toll booths on the pike (I-90). No transponders needed (although you can use one). They use your license plate.

          • MrE85

            Huh. Well, that would be easier, I guess.

          • Jeff C.

            Any guess as to what they do when the license plate is unreadable (due to snow on the plate, a trailer-hitch mounted cargo box blocking it, etc.)?

          • There are two license plates so I imagine they pick one or the other and if they both are obscured, I suppose you’re a freebie.

          • Jeff C.

            Did they change the rules? I think you only need a rear plate in MA. Are you forgetting your heritage? 🙂

          • jon

            until the cop sees you and you get to pay extra for the toll, and the obstructed license plate.

          • AL287

            If the commenters here never hit the Mass Turnpike on the western side at rush hour heading into the suburbs before the pay booths were demolished, you missed a real life game of chicken.

            It was a real cluster-you-know-what. I made a promise to myself I would never visit Boston again until they thought of a better way to collect tolls.

            Good on Devall Patrick for finding a more sensible and efficient way to deal with the urban commute.

            I also avoid the Tri-State Tollway in Chicago unless someone else is doing the driving. One serious accident and you can spend hours waiting for the traffic to clear.

          • jon

            I got hit in CO on our vacation with a license plate tolling system…
            Actually I got hit by two different license plate tolling systems in CO…

            A week or two after we got home got a bill in the mail for $4 and change, then another a few days later from a different system.

          • Matt Black

            The I-Pass is actually a great deal. There’s a $10 deposit and no monthly or annual fee. You pay half the posted rates. We’ve had ours about 10 years now and have never lived in Illinois. We use it once or twice a year but it makes the drive through a lot less trouble.

          • KTFoley

            If MN adopts toll highways, the state needs to think seriously about trading in MNPass for a system that is accepted more widely, and that can be used in multiple venues such as toll lanes, toll roads, and airport parking

            E-ZPass works for the northeast quadrant of the US. Every toll-collecting state east of Wisconsin accepts it except FL, GA and SC. (The Avis desk at Boston’s Logan Airport prominently displays a sign advising customers to obtain an E-ZPass with their car rental: first missed exit out of the Sumner Tunnel and the wisdom of that advice becomes really clear.)

            The list of electronic toll-collecting systems features 17 entries in the US, of which all but E-ZPass are state- or location-specific. Do long-haul truckers in the south & west have a special bin to hold all those transponders?

          • Rob

            What is this “cash” of which you speak?

        • Jerry

          I didn’t know toll booths were equipped with sweet jumps


  • amiller92

    If we’re doing tolls, it should be only as congestion pricing, not as means of generating revenue (whether on drivers from other states or not).

  • Rob

    For whom do the roads toll? They toll for thee.

  • lindblomeagles

    While the spotlight letter of the week makes good points, we, THE VOTERS, NEED TO START USING OUR HEADS. ASK THE TOUGH QUESTIONS!!!! Why did Trump REALLY propose this, and why are Minnesota and Wisconsin Republicans going along? Let’s look at that. Trump is trying to give the wealthiest Americans an ENORMOUS TAX CUT. He tried to do this by cutting ACA, especially Medicaid/Medicare. That didn’t work. He then sent Congress a laughable Tax Reform Agenda. That didn’t work. His latest scheme, raising tolls everywhere and other fees on users, which shrinks the federal budget and voila, the wealthy get their tax breaks. There’s nothing noble or innovative going on here. IT’S ALL A CON. Minnesota Republicans aren’t much better. They found all kinds of tricky ways to reduce taxes on the state’s well – to – do during this year’s bonding bill. And Scott Walker IS KNOWN for being “friendly to the wealthy.” A TRUE INNOVATIVE PATH to infrastructure rebuild would have been a mixture of some tolls, raisng the gas tax, and increasing taxes on the wealthy. But NO! Republicans aren’t interested in paying their fair share DESPITE FULLY KNOWING our infrastructure needs repair. I say, don’t get spoofed by the Republican Party anymore. Don’t allow the GOP to tell you the little guy uses the roads too much and the wealthy subsidize these moochers too much. EVERYBODY uses roads and its time we the voters let the wealthy know that.

  • Jack

    Ah the good old Commerce Clause – it will get you every time. That will be the key to a Supreme Court challenge to anyone trying tolls at the border.

  • jon

    Didn’t the government (congress) say we needed interoperable tolling by 2016?

    Here it is…
    “MAP-21 [Moving Ahead For Progress In the 21st Century Act] also requires that all Federal-aid highway toll facilities implement technologies or business practices that provide for the interoperability of electronic toll collection by October 1, 2016 (four years after the enactment of MAP-21’s new tolling requirements).”


    Did this get overturned at some point? Or are we just not following the laws? Can I sue states that don’t offer interoperability right now (if I can show damages)?

  • MrE85

    Here’s the toll road I go through on my way to and from Indiana. https://www.wiscontext.org/view-toll-roads-janesville-rest-stop