State leaders are still at odds over how to pay for roads in the next state budget. But consensus is building around tolling interstate highways as a long-range funding solution.

This is progress.

To their credit, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Minority Leader Peter Barca have been talking about tolling traffic on the interstates for years. Now Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sounds like he’s ready to pursue this reasonable option, which would bring in more revenue from out-of-state tourists and trucks. “It’s something that needs to be explored,” Fitzgerald told reporters.

Actually, it’s been studied quite a bit. And the longer state leaders wait to act, the longer they’ll struggle with shortfalls in their transportation budget.

That’s because the state needs permission from the federal government to toll interstate highways, and successfully petitioning Congress is expected to take years. So it’s not an answer to the current transportation budget shortfall and deteriorating roads.

The simple fix for the two-year state budget that begins July 1 is a modest increase in the gas tax or vehicle registration fee. Neither of these charges has been increased in a decade. And unlike other taxes that keep going up every year, the gas tax has been slipping because it’s based on the number of gallons motorists buy, which is in decline because of fuel-efficient vehicles.

The situation is becoming dire. Wisconsin has some of the worst roads in the nation, according to a state audit and other assessments. Gov. Scott Walker’s strategy has been to borrow to get by, but that isn’t sustainable.

Tolling could eventually bring in lots of revenue to help replace and maintain interstate highways while freeing up other transportation dollars for local roads. According to a Department of Transportation study last year, a 5 cent-per-mile toll that increased with inflation would bring in $29 billion over 30 years.

Modern tolling doesn’t require traffic to stop. It relies on devices attached to windshields that automatically charge a driver’s account when his or her vehicle passes a wireless checkpoint.

A majority of respondents to a statewide Marquette Law School poll — 56 percent — said they are willing to accept tolling to pay for roads. Tolling polled better than raising the gas tax or registration fee (40 percent), borrowing (32 percent) or taking dollars from other state programs (28 percent).

Lawmakers should modestly raise traditional fees on drivers in the next state budget while seeking permission for modern tolling as a long-term funding fix.

FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL