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Tolling Points

What States Can Teach Us About Tolling

To put a major dent in one of the most serious financial challenges facing the United States, Members of Congress need not pass new taxes, introduce new programs, or adopt across-the-board mandates that could put them on a collision course with local and regional stakeholders.

All they have to do is create the flexibility for states to fund their own solutions to the transportation infrastructure funding crisis.

By taking a more permissive approach to highway tolling—not as a mandate but as one tool in a wider toolbox of transportation funding options—Congress can give its blessing to a trend that has already taken root in 34 states. A recent post in Road Pricing points to Texas as a state that is taking the lead in the effective, responsible use of tolling:

Texas: Leading toll road state in the USA?

Is Texas the king state for tolling in the US?

A story from TV station KENS5 on its website seems to suggest this. Some key points:

• Tolling is the default option as a source of funding for major road projects, as long as it is technically feasible to do so;

• Fuel taxes in Texas have not increased in 20 years, so revenue has been substantially eroded by inflation and engine efficiency (75% of fuel tax revenue is hypothecated into the state Highway Trust Fund);

• A report in 2009 said Texas needs US$4 billion more spending per year to prevent congestion worsening (although I'd argue congestion pricing might make a major dent in that);

• Since 2006, Texas has built 150 miles of toll roads and has 100 miles more planned (this includes HOT lanes);

• The Texas legislature authorized seven PPP (public-private partnership) toll roads in 2011.

The philosophy appears to be that tolls are preferable to raising taxes, including taxing fuel. Strong belief that user pays is fair.

Mike Perez, the McAllen city manager said “The feeling is if you want to use it, you should pay for it,” ...“That’s what I see in McAllen. There’s a kind of hesitancy toward ‘Let's all go together and pay for it so 20 percent can use it.’”

That's a point to respect; all new road projects benefit a minority of motorists, so why should all pay for it, when those who use it can be charged directly.

The post ends with a strong argument that Texas should embrace tolling even more widely:

States across the US are coming to realize that with the difficulty in raising fuel taxes, there will have to be new sources of revenue to pay for roads and new arrangements. Texas has grasped the obvious option of simply using tolls more frequently, and to be fair, the projects that have progressed have lent themselves to them.

It has embraced user-pay, but I question whether more can be done with tolls to manage peak demand, and what happens when conventional tolls cannot be stretched further. That's when debate must move onto VMT (vehicle miles traveled)/MBUF (mileage-based user fee)/distance-based charging, which will raise the hackles of some in terms of privacy. Yet a state that purportedly is led by politicians who embrace private enterprise and user-pay should embrace more user-pay on roads, and even the commercialization and private investment in more roads.

In the meantime, good on Texas for embracing tolls. May it continue and inspire other states to see how far they can practically use tolls to pay for new road capacity…

An interactive map of toll roads in Texas is here.

These arguments are resonating across the United States, and Texas is not alone among state-level innovators. From California to Massachusetts, states are embracing cost-effective, innovative tolling systems. Both the Golden Gate Bridge in California’s Bay Area and Boston’s Tobin Bridge are on track to make the transition to all-electronic toll collection systems that help fund vital infrastructure while getting drivers to their destinations, safely and efficiently.

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) recently launched its Moving America Forward campaign to highlight the benefits of tolling as a key option to fund safe, reliable mobility for our nation’s drivers. With limited funding options at the federal level, states should have the flexibility to reach into the wider toolbox of funding and financing strategies and pick the mix of options that works best for them.

(Photo by rcbodden)


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