By Eric Kulisch
Nobody likes to pay higher taxes or tolls to use roads and highways because we’ve become conditioned to feeling that these are free assets that once built last forever.
That mentality has made it difficult to pass a surface transportation reauthorization bill to fund highway maintenance, new capacity and safety programs.
Congress recently passed another extension of existing funding authority that will last until the end of March. The last multi-year spending blueprint expired more than two years ago and the Department of Transportation has been operating on a stop-gap basis without the certainty of long-term funding.
One of the themes that came out of a panel discussion hosted by the BiPartisan Policy Center on Oct. 20 is that greater use of tolling and other market-based schemes will be necessary to keep vehicular arteries in a state of good repair and efficient operation.
Several speakers stressed that people are willing to pay extra to avoid congestion and get better roads if they perceive they are getting value for their money rather than feeling it disappears into an opaque government bureaucracy where it can be wasted on other things.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., countered the popular perception that the stimulus money from the 2009 Recovery Act for transportation infrastructure didn’t go to any good uses because officials were so intent on supporting paving and other work that could quickly put people to work.
He said stimulus money in his state helped upgrade the I-95 toll plaza and install radio-frequency identification equipment that can read E-ZPass transponders at highway speed.
E-ZPass is a consortium of 24 toll agencies in 14 states between Maine, Illinois and Virginia that use an interoperable system to collect tolls so drivers can pass through the network using a single electronic tag. An antenna electronically reads the account information on a vehicle’s tag and the toll is automatically deducted from the driver’s prepaid account.
Carper said that when he was governor years ago he felt ashamed that travelers going up the Northeast Corridor would be stuck in long lines at the toll plaza on holiday weekends or other busy periods to pay a $4 fee to use a 25-mile stretch of highway.
In July, the Delaware Department of Transportation completed a $44 million reconfiguration of the toll plaza to add open-road tolling. Some of the physical toll booths were removed in the center of the facility to make room for two highway lanes in each direction so people don’t have to slow down.
Carper said he visited the toll facility on the Friday before July 4th.
“Looked north – traffic moving. Looked south – traffic moving. No backups that day, the next day, the 4th of July.
“It was a glorious day. People were glad to pay their $4,” Carper said, noting the project improved congestion and reduced air pollution from idling vehicles.
But public skepticism about tolls remains strong, as evidenced by a ballot initiative in the state of Washington that seeks to prohibit future congestion pricing (the practice of adjusting tolls based on demand at particular times of day to encourage more off-peak driving) and make all tolls in the state uniform. The initiative would also require that fees only be used to maintain the facility on which the toll is charged, not dispersed for other transportation purposes such as light rail. And tolls would expire as soon as bonds for a project are paid off.
Recent polls show that the initiative is ahead by 10 points. Businesses, including Microsoft, environmental groups, unions and others in the state are trying to defeat the initiative.
If passed, the initiative would prevent the state from using toll revenues to back the selling of bonds for mega-projects. State officials say gas taxes are already dedicated to road maintenance and other uses and can’t be used as collateral for new upgrades.
Initiative 1125 would also take the unusual step of giving the legislature sole authority to set tolls. No other state operates this way. Washington tolls are currently set by a seven-member transportation commission appointed by the governor and subject to Senate confirmation.
State Treasurer Jim McIntire told the Tacoma News Tribune that would drive up the cost of borrowing by double-digits. Washington wouldn’t be able to pay for projects without raising gas taxes, he said.
Reporter Jordan Schrader notes, however, that the legislature could still delegate its power back to the commission.
I-1125 would also undercut McIntire’s plan to use tolls from the I-90 bridge to help pay for the unfunded portion of the Rt. 520 bridge. He says he needs the flexibility to fully finance the project because investors won’t buy bonds that are guaranteed only by the tolls on two-thirds of the bridge
One of the assumptions about privatizing toll roads is that the private sector firm will operate the facility much more efficiently and maintain it at higher standards than a government agency.
But in my neck of the woods here in Northern Virginia there is a 14-mile toll road owned by the Australian Macquarie Group that charges between $4.45 and $5.25 for a car and between $12.60 and $15 for a five-axle truck depending on rush hour. It runs counter to everything I expect from a modern toll road.
There are no highway-speed toll lanes. Everyone has to slow down to go through the narrow lanes between booths. The gates operate all the time, even during rush hour and for E-ZPass customers, forcing everyone to slow down.
The four-lane road dumps into a two-lane road connecting to another highway. During rush hour that road can back up severely.
So basically you rush and pay your money to sit in traffic at the end.
There is no distance-based pricing, so those who only need to go a few exits and miles have to pay the same fee as someone who gets on at one end and travels the entire road.
When someone who doesn’t have E-ZPass gets in the E-ZPass lane there is a long delay as an attendant has to come over and manually do a credit card or cash transaction. How about using license plate readers or other technology to catch the license number of a violator and sending him, or her, a bill in the mail?
Talk about not getting value for your money. Toll roads that charge steep prices should guarantee service except for circumstances out of their control.
How about a refund to my E-ZPass account if the toll operator can’t deliver on a safe and speedy trip?