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Tolling Points

A Different Road Leads to the Benefits of Tolling

By: 
Bill Cramer

A provocative and transparent conversation about toll financing is breaking out on the Strong Towns website, where Content Manager Daniel Herriges is asking readers to think out why they would be for or against tolling on a particular stretch of roadway.

Strong Towns presents itself as a media organization that is “challenging every American to fundamentally rethink how our cities are built,” and “shining a spotlight on an approach that will make us truly prosperous.” Which makes it precisely the kind of unexpected stakeholder that IBTTA likes to connect with.

They don’t live inside the transportation infrastructure bubble. But towns and cities’ vitality depends in part on tolling agencies’ ability to mobilize innovative funding and financing for the roads they need.

And vice versa—the tolling industry’s ability to deliver the projects communities need is built up every time another community voice starts talking about how we can help them get the infrastructure they need.

What Does Success Look Like?

The conversation on the Strong Towns social media feeds started out with Herriges reading about North Carolina’s Triangle Expressway and recasting a potentially controversial story as a success. He started by taking issue with the headline: “Nobody drives on North Carolina’s first and only toll road.”

“The headline of this article...well, that's one way to frame it,” he wrote. “Another way to frame it? NC built a toll road that did exactly what it was supposed to do: disincentivize endless driving with no regard for actual road maintenance costs, while generating enough money to fix our infrastructure when it breaks. Oh, and along the way, it actually beat revenue projections.”

He added that “we're not surprised folks on the ground in NC want to build more tolls on more routes. This incremental experiment sounds like a success to us.”

Some readers pushed back on his post, arguing that transportation investment should focus on maintaining the most productive existing infrastructure and helping users reduce their dependence on private vehicles, rather than promoting what Herriges summarized as “a fiscally unsustainable development pattern on the fringes of Raleigh-Durham.” He replied that Strong Towns advocates should get behind tolling as a highway management approach, whether or not they see the need for the specific road—and urged his community to distinguish between their end goals and the means by which they achieve them.

Different Paths to a Destination

 “A lot of readers are attracted to Strong Towns because they like the ends we envision: a return to the traditional development pattern, which produces fiscally productive and resilient places. Places built to a human scale. Places that are walkable,” he wrote.

“We don't, however, believe those ends can be achieved by the top-down orchestration of where we spend our money, in huge increments at a time. We think that pay-as-you-go and skin in the game are essential principles.”

Which means “risk and reward should be linked in financing development and infrastructure projects. Those who benefit from an investment should pay for it. If they're unwilling to pay what it actually costs, it's a good sign that the project should never have happened in the first place.”

By that standard, he says, the Triangle Expressway is a success: it’s beating revenue projections and paying back its construction bonds.

“If this road is going to exist at all, it should be tolled, and that tolling should be high enough to pay off the cost of building the road, as well as long-term maintenance,” Herriges writes. “If we built only roads that could pay for their construction in full through user fees, we would have no infrastructure crisis. So when we succeed in doing this, even in a place that has no shortage of problems with its development pattern, that's something that should be lauded as a model.”

It’s clear from Herriges’ writing that IBTTA and Strong Towns wouldn’t see eye to eye on everything.

But when you’re reaching out for allies, you don’t expect 100% agreement—you look for the areas of shared interest where you support each other’s goals and figure out how you can each help the other achieve them.

Herriges’ analysis of toll roads isn’t precisely ours, but he finds an interesting road to a conclusion we can happily endorse: that highway construction costs should be covered by user fees, and tolling is an essential tool in the transportation funding and financing toolbox.

Click here for IBTTA’s SmartMove case study on the Triangle Expressway.

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