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Tolling Points

Tolling and the New Psychology of Highway Funding: Part 1

Patrick Jones

In the first of a two-part series, IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Pat Jones shares some of his most important takeaways from the association’s 2016 Transportation Policy and Finance Summit, March 13-15, 2016 in Washington, DC. While the summit was about infrastructure funding, many of the most valuable insights from panelists and participants had to do with the way decision-makers, toll customers, and the general public think about their highways.

One of the best discussions at this year’s policy and finance summit took place during the closing session, where a panel of media representatives talked about strategies for informing the public about tolling and highway finance.

We’ve known for some time that some of the concepts we take for granted in tolling are hard to communicate. But this panel took the conversation a giant step farther, with panelists pointing out that transportation professionals have a different vocabulary from what the layperson reads or hears in the news.

What We Said and What They Heard

When our customers hear us talk about trip reliability, they’re thrilled—because they think it means a toll road or managed lane will get rid of congestion, once and for all. That would be fine, except that we were saying something very different. To anyone in our industry, trip reliability means a predictable ride: our promise is that the daily commute will take 40 minutes every day, not 30 minutes one day and 90 the next.

That distinction is hard enough to convey in an era of 10-second sound bites and 45-second news stories. It’s that much tougher when everyone is using the same words, but has a different idea of what they mean.

Tolling in the Wide-Open West

Anchor and Reporter Danielle Leigh of King 5 News in Seattle put a geographic twist on the old notion that our roads are already paid for—or if they aren’t, the cost of operating and maintaining them should be covered by taxes. Leigh said people who live in the more densely-populated east have a much easier time embracing the concept of user financing. By comparison, people who take pride in the wide open spaces of the American west might be more inclined to expect their infrastructure to come to them at no (visible) cost.

"They have a principle that they are having trouble adjusting to getting rid of,” she said, in one of the more memorable quotes from the conference.

Then again, Leigh said the conversation is shifting in her own Pacific Northwest community, where high traffic volumes have led into a conversation about tolling and paying for mobility. California’s experience with managed lanes would reinforce the point that the tougher local congestion gets, the more likely it becomes that customers will accept some from of user financing.

Paying for New Pavement

The Washington Post’s Bob Thomson, a.k.a. Dr. Gridlock, had a final insight to share for anyone who operates in a built-up urban corridor, where there’s simply no room to expand. Thomson said transportation planners and government officials might be ready to offer tolled lanes as a form of congestion management. But customers might be more willing to accept tolling if they can see that they’re paying for new pavement.

It’s a disconnect that goes right back to the vocabulary we use to talk about tolling, highways, and highway funding. And it’s a conundrum that will become ever more important, as more metropolitan centers hit the limit of their capacity for new roads.

Click here to view various presentations from IBTTA’s 2016 Transportation Policy and Finance Summit. Check back for a Summit Summary Report in the nea


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