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Tolling Points

Planners Cite Severe Weather as the Next Source of Highway Disruption

Bill Cramer

As traffic volumes begin to recover in some areas, a recent news item points to climate change and severe weather as the next source of disruption and uncertainty for America’s surface transportation system.

Although the words “toll”, “user”, and “finance” never show up in The Washington Post story, the analysis points to two advantages that could make tolled infrastructure an essential source of relief from the next crisis highway commuters are likely to face—a deep commitment to excellent maintenance and robust emergency preparedness, and a revenue stream that doesn’t depend on a rapidly-eroding federal gas tax.

The Post points to some serious challenges for the general purpose highway system that can only be solved with a sustained commitment to adequate infrastructure funding. But if you already knew that user financing was an essential tool in the transportation funding and financing toolbox, it becomes even more important in a world of accelerating sea level rise and more frequent, severe hurricanes, snowstorms, wildfires and heat waves that can imperil the literal, physical structures that make efficient, reliable mobility possible.

A fundamental reassessment

For many years now, all the credible science has pointed to mounting climate impacts for years and decades to come.

“Weather already causes approximately 15 percent of congestion, according to the Federal Highway Administration,” the article states. “With climate change escalating—scientists expect extreme weather events such as heat waves, snowstorms, hurricanes and floods to increase in both frequency and intensity—gridlock will only grow. That is, unless governments change the way they plan, design and manage climate-sensitive infrastructure.”

The root of the problem is that “America’s transportation system is not set up to recover and regain functionality after a major disruption or disasters,” Paula Pagniez, director of the Climate and Resilience Hub at Willis Towers Watson, told the Post. “Both chronic and acute changes in weather [have an] impact [on] America’s roads, bridges, tunnels and transit.”

That reality has Arizona State University’s Mikhail Chester, co-leader of the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, calling for planners to “fundamentally reassess what our systems need to be able to deliver, and under what conditions.” The Post digs into the details and complexities of that rethink, beginning with the trade-off between the high cost of either over- or under-engineering a surface transportation system to accommodate future extreme conditions that have become so difficult to predict.

“We’re not going to shut off CO2 emissions overnight, so the climate is going to continue changing. The question is, by how much and in which direction?” Chester explained. “Let’s say you design a road in Chicago for the hottest week on record, which might be 105 degrees. Well, the hottest week going forward might be 108 degrees, or it could be 120 degrees.”

Delivering a reliable roadway

For tolled facilities, of course, there’s an added level of challenge—and opportunity.

Every tolling agency is committed to delivering safer, more reliable mobility. That focus is baked into the business model: if customers are paying for the service, they expect their dollars, Euros, or yuan to be reinvested in the quality of the road they depend on.

Those continuing customer relationships, in turn, give toll roads a continuing, predictable revenue stream they can dedicate to maintenance, operations, and upgrades, unlike general purpose highways forced to juggle the ups and downs of gas tax revenues. As the COVID-19 experience has shown, user financing also gives tolling agencies the resilience to withstand massive, unforeseen disruption, not least by earning them the respect of rating agencies and lenders who were willing to work alongside them when the chips were down.

And then there’s the operational experience. From cooperation and coordination with state law enforcement, to keeping roadway maintenance crews safe, to preparing for massive storms, cyber-attacks, or emergency preparedness and response is an area where tolling agencies excel. After Superstorm Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey in October 2012, area tolling agencies were essential to the evacuation, response, and recovery effort—for the brutally simple reason that a roadway is one piece of major infrastructure that can’t get out of the way before a storm hits, and has to be operational afterwards if anything else is going to work.

In the aftermath of Sandy, IBTTA convened tolling executives from New York, New Jersey and Florida to talk about lessons learned from hurricane response in all three jurisdictions. As those agencies’ emergency experience becomes more common and mainstream, the tolling community will be at the center of the effort to keep highway users safe and mobile.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 11:00


Thank you Bill. Sustainability and Resilience are in my opinion, key elements in every business, tolling is no exception. I expect these topics to be high on future IBTTA's strategic planning and conversations.