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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-09-003    Date:  Mar/Apr 2009
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-09-003
Issue No: Vol. 72 No. 5
Date: Mar/Apr 2009


Guest Editorial

Change: The Road Ahead for the Highway Industry

A photo of David Winter A photo of Ralph Erickson
David Winter Ralph Erickson

For the past six decades, the United States has succeeded beyond expectations in providing economic growth that has enhanced the wealth of the Nation. An integrated highway system connecting farm to market, port to port, and community to community has contributed significantly to that accomplishment. The growing consensus of many, however, is that the transportation system and its funding structure no longer are meeting the country's needs and are due for a change.

The financing mechanism for the Federal-aid highway system set up in the mid-1950s was based on the principle that users of the road system should pay the cost of building that system. In simple terms, the more people drive, the more they pay in fuel taxes. Motor fuel taxes, commonly known as the gas tax, have been sufficient over previous decades to cover the cost of additional highway construction and maintenance. The gas tax was a simple, easy-to-administer application of that principle, but now it faces criticism as the principal funding mechanism, and it is no longer adequate as the principal funding mechanism to cover the needs of today's transportation system. If a new funding mechanism or mechanisms were to be used and the gas tax was to go away, what funding sources would be substituted in its place?

Certainly new ideas have surfaced. One of those is an old one: road users pay tolls for the roads on which they travel. In addition to a traditional toll, which is a single charge, when the road reaches capacity, a higher toll could be charged to reflect the relative scarcity of road space — much like a supply and demand model. An article in this issue of Public Roads, "Congestion Pricing With Lane Reconfigurations To Add Highway Capacity," discusses one version of this concept.

Another article, "Revisiting the TEA-21 Reauthorization: Extensions and Delays," discusses the lead-up to the most recent highway bill and the stream of Federal transportation funding. The article contains lessons about change and the growing challenges of financing the Nation's surface transportation system. In many respects, the one thing the transportation community can depend on is that the way business was conducted in the past will change.

As concluded by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, the transportation community has been challenged by a wide range of options. Like the pioneers of a new era, with open minds and a willingness to consider new ideas and changing circumstances, the transportation community will rise to the challenges and continue helping the Nation grow and prosper.

David Winter

Director, Office of Highway Policy Information

Federal Highway Administration

Ralph Erickson

Supervisory Transportation Specialist

Federal Highway Administration



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