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Tolling Points

'Three-Legged Funding Stool' Holds Solution for Congested I-81

By: 
Bill Cramer

A late January opinion piece in the Roanoke Times in western Virginia captures the kind of integrated, systematic thinking that could deliver a durable solution to the United States’ infrastructure investment crisis.

The post by retired public relations executive Larry Hincker gives tolling its due as one of the essential sources of highway funds, and a proven form of congestion relief. But what’s even more important is his image of a “three-legged funding stool” as the surest way to bring enough money into the system, while reconciling differing views on how to fund needed improvements along congested interstate highway 81 as it wends its way southwest from Washington, DC.

He’s basically arguing that the three revenue sources the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has considered—a regional sales tax increase, a regional fuels tax, and tolls—will get local highway users farther, faster if they’re combined into a single solution. It may not fully satisfy any of the stakeholders involved (including tolling). But if it replaces political paralysis with action and results, customers will be the big winner and all the options will end up with a win.

The End of Gridlock

The story began with VDOT assessing the three funding sources in different scenarios to raise about $2.2 billion, about half of what experts say the road ultimately needs, to fund capital and operating improvements. Officials recommended that legislators either enact both new taxes, or rely solely on a variable toll program that would raise about $145 million per year, Hincker explains.

That led to a mid-January Roanoke Times report that elected officials were “torn” about which funding sources to choose. “Everybody agrees there is a problem, and nobody sees the solution in the same way,” said House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert. Hincker elaborates on the local interests in key electoral districts that have legislators lining up on different sides of the issue.

And he suggests a simple solution to political gridlock. “Why is it always somebody else’s problem to fix? Why rely on one leg or the other?” he asks. “Why not use all and reduce needed revenues from any one source—and the resulting impact on constituencies?”

A Role for Tolls

As one part of his three-legged stool, Hincker carves out an essential role for tolling. Particularly truck tolls.

“We all know trucks are essential to our modern economy. Thanks Amazon—and the American consumer—and just-in-time manufacturing. But trucks now account for 40% of I-81 traffic, heavier than any other interstate and far beyond its design capacity,” he writes.

“Experts agree that western Virginia’s hilly terrain and heavy truck traffic on I-81 cause problems—higher than average accidents, higher than average clean-up time, and not to mention hellaciously frustrated drivers in the left lane. Trucks contribute significantly to congestion and should carry a significant financial load, in addition to their precious cargo.”

But that doesn’t mean the daytime truck levy of 15¢ per mile couldn’t be moderated, Hincker states. That rate “might be a bit stiff and could be reduced if the other funding legs are included in the overall plan. And while truckers oppose tolls, note that VDOT’s economic impact analysis demonstrated savings from improved logistic reliability of the corridor.”

The big takeaway from Hincker’s line of argument is that some of the most stubborn problems can be solved with a bit of coordination, cooperation, dialogue, and integration. His three-legged funding stool looks like a great solution for everyone, most notably the truckers who rely on I-81 and the “hellaciously frustrated drivers in the left lane.”

As of this posting, it is unclear how I-81’s much needed construction and maintenance will be paid for, but as IBTTA has been saying for years, tolling is not the silver bullet, but it does have a tried and proven record. IBTTA supports a mix of funding to invest in our nation’s highways, bridges and tunnels to keep the economy growing. When you're sitting still, you are losing the competitive edge.

Find the creative solutions for your own highway project! Attend IBTTA’s Summit on Finance & Policy, May 19-21, 2019 in Philadelphia, PA.

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