The roadways that we drive on are no different than any of the utilities that Oregonians consume. We pay for water, sewer, gas, electricity, telephone and transit each time we use them.
Turn a faucet or an overhead light on, a meter turns and a bill arrives. Cable television, Internet and telephone access all are paid for on a monthly basis. TriMet bus riders pay for their fares either ahead of time or as they board.
These mechanisms remind us of our consumption. Every time we make use of one of these utilities, we either pay in advance or know that a bill will arrive.
Our roadway system, however, has not developed in that same way. The payments are, for most users, indirect – i.e., gas tax, weight-mile tax, license fees.
When we do buy gasoline, the amount we pay for the upkeep of the roadway system is not apparent; the tax is buried. Anyway, with gas costing almost $5 per gallon and cars getting 35-45 mpg, this source is not a long-term solution. In addition, bicyclists and pedestrians benefit from this utility, yet make no payments.
Throughout history, those who have invested in horizontal accessibility improvements have been reimbursed. In the seventh century B.C. toll roads were in existence to ensure that commerce could be conducted. Even in Oregon, the Barlow Road was a toll road.
In the early part of this century, Oregonians were required to provide direct labor to maintain the state roadways. Somewhere along the way, however, Oregonians became disconnected from their roadways and lost sight of the fact that their use does not come without cost.
States with more intensive roadways systems have used tolls to pay for them. Even states with substantial open land, such as Kansas, have a pay-as-you-go system for some roadways. The Kansas Turnpike covers a significant part of the state and speeds commerce along.
Oregon should consider using tolls as a contributing mechanism to pay for its roadway infrastructure. Tolls will alert Oregonians of the money that is needed to maintain this critical asset. It is likely that they will pay more attention to the condition of the system. Much of the younger generation may not realize that free and clear access does not come without cost.
Assessing tolls at strategic locations for all users would be a place to start. Equity in toll assessment must be considered. Diversion of tolls to general revenue purposes must be guarded against.
And most importantly, all users should contribute their share to the maintenance and upgrade of this system. Payment should be connected directly to use.
Let real costs drive the decisions of where to invest in Oregon’s infrastructure. The results may be surprising.
Christian Steinbrecher is president of Ukiah Engineering Inc., a senior consultant at Capital Project Consultants, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Oregon section and the ASCE Oregon 2011-2012 Civil Engineer of the Year. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.