Taxes or tolls? Pick your solution to the nation's road woes.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters recommended the latter as a way to attract private investment to pay for the nation's ever-growing transportation needs.
With at least $400 billion available for investment in infrastructure, private entities from around the world could build roads and bridges and earn profits on their investments by charging fees to users, in some cases in the form of tolls, Peters said.
"We can unleash the greatest wave of transportation investment this country has ever seen," Peters said. "We need the political will to say no to earmarks, yes to private innovations, yes to faster approval times and yes to infrastructure projects that solve our congestion problem and help our economy."
Peters made her policy pitch after touring the Hoover Dam Bypass project Wednesday.
Her recommendation is an alternative to a proposed 40-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase recently recommended by a national transportation commission looking at ways to shore up the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
The January report by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommended the increase in the federal gasoline tax, as well as private investment and toll roads, to raise $225 billion annually needed to repair and expand the nation's road network.
Peters served on the commission but disagreed with its gasoline tax increase proposal. She also argued that the commission's estimated $225 billion annual bill for road building was too high.
The federal government spends about $50 billion annually on transportation.
Peters said private investment in roads, bridges and transit systems is the norm in Europe and Asia. In addition, with the nation needing to cut its consumption of fossil fuels for environmental and national security reasons, the gasoline tax probably will raise less revenue in the future, she said.
One problem with Peters' plan is that the majority of states, including Nevada, do not allow tolling to be used as a revenue source. The idea has proved unpopular among Nevadans and their legislative representatives.
Peters encouraged Nevada to pass laws similar to those in California, Texas and Virginia, which would allow the state to take advantage of the private investment money available.
Nevada transportation consultant Tom Skancke, who also served on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, said legislation to allow tolls in Nevada could not even get a committee hearing during the last legislative session.
While Skancke agreed that tolls, private investments and private-public partnerships are needed, the gasoline tax is the fastest solution to fund the country's most immediate transportation needs.
"We need it all," he said.
But neither increasing taxes to pay for highway projects nor toll roads were popular with Nevadan voters in a May 2007 Review-Journal poll. Conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, the poll of 625 registered Nevada voters found that 78 percent were against an increase to the state fuel tax and 56 percent were against tolls.
A majority of those asked did, however, support increasing the gaming tax and/or diverting current hotel room tax money to pay for transportation projects.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at email@example.com or (702) 387-2904.