Save Your Quarters: States Add Toll Roads
Save Your Quarters: States Add Toll Roads
By Kathleen Murphy
States are taking the free out of freeway. Toll roads are booming because gas tax revenues are woefully inadequate to pay for constructing and improving highways.
California, Florida and Texas are adding toll lanes or turning existing lanes into pay-as-you-go roads. Georgia is debating charging a toll on an existing road, and Colorado and Virginia are considering toll lanes in sections of interstates.
In an emerging trend, some states are turning away from strict public financing of new roadways and forging partnerships in which private companies build and operate a toll road in return for long-term toll revenue. Maryland has looked at teaming up with private firms to build express toll lanes, and Texas is building a toll road between San Antonio and Austin in partnership with a private company.
Indiana Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels (R) is even considering a plan to sell the state toll road to private interests to generate billions of dollars.
States are looking at tolls as a revenue source because of the declining vigor of the gas tax, but other factors also are driving the appeal of tolls. A federal transportation bill would give states more tolling authority. In addition, toll roads have state transportation officials seeing dollar signs.
The first toll road owned and operated by the Texas Department of Transportation — the Camino Colombia Toll Road on State Highway 255 — collected more than $72,000 since it began charging $2 per car in November, said Diane Vela, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. The 22-mile limited-access highway connects the United States and Mexico.
“In Texas, every new project is looked at for its potential as a toll road,” said William Stockton, associate director of the Texas Transportation Institute in College Station.
States traditionally have used the gas tax charged on each gallon sold at the pump to fund highway construction and improvements. But as cars have become more fuel-efficient, gas tax revenues haven’t kept pace with the rising cost of new roads, transportation experts said. Also, gas taxes in most states aren’t indexed to inflation so even as construction costs climb, revenues wane.
For example, a Colorado Transportation Department study estimated $125 billion will be needed for highway improvements by 2030. But existing revenue sources are expected to generate only $64 billion, a significant shortfall.
State gas taxes range from 8 cents a gallon in Alaska to 31 cents in Wisconsin. In addition, the federal government collects taxes of 18.4 cents a gallon for the Highway Trust Fund. The fund pays for maintaining and improving interstate highways and federal roads. But there, too, fuel efficiency has meant drivers are traveling more yet paying less to pave roads. The idea of raising the federal gas tax has met with staunch opposition from the Bush administration.
Besides declining fuel tax revenue, technology also has made tolls more attractive to government road planners. Electronic toll devices attached to cars automatically charge drivers’ accounts and speed up collection to a hundred times faster than when cars line up at toll booth lanes.
Congress is expected to consider a federal transportation bill this year that includes a provision backed by the Bush administration to let states add more tolls to parts of interstate highways.
Already 2,800 miles of interstate highways are tolled with federal approval, and the number of miles with tolls has increased steadily since 1993, according to a report by the Federal Highway Administration. The proposal before Congress would require states to show that tolling would be the most inexpensive or timely way to fix a road.
The federal 1956 Highway Act provided a method for incorporating toll roads into the interstate system and called for creating freeways when toll road bonds were paid off. But since 1987, federal legislative actions have given states more authority to expand the use of toll roads.
Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters has said tolls would give flexibility to state governments, but drivers’ organizations such as AAA say the trend toward tolls is unfair.
Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, said his nonprofit advocacy organization opposes conversion of freeways to toll roads and is wary of new toll road construction. Turning existing roads already supported through a gas tax into toll roads “will lose public support real quick,” Cohen said.
Some states that have considered new toll lanes have met grassroots opposition. The Georgia Transportation Board is considering turning state Highway 316 between Atlanta and Athens into a toll road, but public opposition voiced through hundreds of e-mails and letters so far has stalled the plan. In Texas, more than 1,000 people attended Transportation Department meetings last year to blast a plan to turn an existing free section of Texas 249, which loops around Houston, into a toll road to fund its expansion, The Houston Chronicle reported.
The Texas Transportation Institute developed a toll feasibility screening tool that has been used to assess the revenue potential of more than 100 roads so far. The tool’s purpose is to find out whether a toll road can pay for itself using a weighted analysis that accounts for anticipated traffic and other factors.
Even as several states look to toll roads for the financial answer to the gas tax crunch, transportation researchers are searching for alternative ways to fund highway improvements. One idea: tax people based on how many miles they drive.
University researchers in Iowa and Oregon are studying ways to track drivers’ mileage and charge them per mile. Oregon’s Road User Fee Task Force, for example, has developed a wireless technology to track drivers’ mileage.