States Want to Add Toll Roads to Fund Repairs
Because of shortfalls in gas taxes, states seek to make up the revenue with tolls.
High fuel prices may not be the only factor adding to the cost of driving -- you could soon be paying tolls to use public highways. In the past, drivers have paid at the pump for infrastructure improvements, since fuel taxes have traditionally funded road and bridge construction and repairs. But with fuel tax revenues dropping and raising taxes currently a political hot potato in Congress, some states are considering adding tolls to highways in order to make up for transportation-infrastructure repair shortfalls.
Toll-accessed turnpikes have existed in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, since before the advent of the Interstate system in 1956. And 2,900 miles of the 47,000-mile Interstate system have “grandfathered” authorization to collect tolls. But restrictions currently preclude other states from enacting tolls on federally funded highways except in certain circumstances.
Now, however, states are increasingly asking Congress to loosen the rules on their ability to charge tolls. While tolls are an imperfect solution for several reasons -- including an increase in bottlenecks and potential mismanagement by private toll collectors -- for many states it’s the best and perhaps the only option to pay for keeping aging transportation infrastructure in shape.
Tolling is less efficient than having everyone pay at the pump. But with fewer people driving because of the economy and more fuel-efficient cars hitting the road, revenues from gas taxes are down. Fuel tax revenues at federal and state levels peaked in 2007, at $72.4 billion, and then dropped to $68.6 billion in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. But state toll collections rose from $4.9 billion in 2000 to $8.9 billion in 2010, and locally administered tolls rose from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $2.5 billion in 2009. So it’s easy to see why states want to slap more tolls on more roads.
States aren’t expecting Congress to help out by raising federal fuel taxes, especially in an election year. Congress hasn’t increased the federal gas and diesel taxes in almost two decades, even though a congressional commission created to recommend ways to fund the maintenance of the U.S. transportation system predicted that the U.S. would encounter horrendous congestion unless more is spent on upkeep.
That’s why an easing of the federal ban on Interstate toll collection is now on the table. The Transportation Department has selected Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri for pilot toll projects. The feds have approved such projects on Interstate 95 in Virginia and North Carolina and on Interstate 70 in Missouri, for example.
A $2 billion project will add High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstate 495 in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. While Virginia can't afford to build the lanes, capital raised by a private investment partnership and a $586 million federal loan have helped fund the project. Only drivers with an automated E-ZPass will be able use the lanes, and toll prices will vary depending on traffic volume. If toll lanes are packed, prices will rise until enough drivers decide to exit into the slower lanes. The goal is to give drivers a way to get where they’re going more quickly -- but only if they’re willing to pay for it. Cars with three or more passengers will be able to use the lanes without paying the toll.
Another issue with tolling is its higher staffing and mechanization costs compared with just paying at the pump, and accounting for where all the money drives pay for tolls goes. Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG, told the Associated Press that the administrative costs involved with tolling far outweigh those of gas taxes. He also added that tolling agencies could also use more scrutiny, since public disclosure and other transparency rules don't always apply. Consequently, the agencies usually operate without oversight, which creates an environment for corruption or manipulation by industry, Baxandall said.
A March report by the New Jersey comptroller apparently proved Baxandall’s observations correct: It said that cronyism and mismanagement at the Delaware River Port Authority, which manages four bridges, a ferry and a rail line across the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had wasted millions of dollars.
In the meantime, motorists are caught between Congress telling state and local governments not to pursue greater tolling while it simultaneously fails to provide an alternative source of funding. And they could be caught in more traffic on top of all that. In addition to having to slow to pay tolls, side roads could become more clogged as thrifty motorists use them to avoid paying their way.
Anything is better than toll roads.
But in all honesty: how about managing income and expenses better?
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