Changing lanes

| July 05, 2007

Skyway car and truck tolls are scheduled almost to double by 2017. If the concession exercises its lease option to increase truck tolls an additional 40 percent, the Skyway’s 7.8 miles will cost an owner-operator $1.85 per mile in 10 years – more than most owner-operators gross today.

Independent owner-operators will face the tricky task of trying to pass the increased toll costs to customers, but many of their leased counterparts may be somewhat better off. Most dry van fleets (64 percent) reimburse leased owner-operators for all road tolls, but this is done only by 39 percent of flatbed carriers and 33 percent of refrigerated carriers, says Gordon Klemp of the Transportation Research Institute, publisher of the National Survey of Driver Wages.

REROUTING. As privatization brings more and higher tolls, “You will likely see truck traffic diverted to other local roads that aren’t designed for that kind of traffic” and that will be less safe than controlled-access roads, says Clayton Boyce, public affairs vice president for the American Trucking Associations. ATA, OOIDA and other groups have formed an anti-privatization coalition, Americans for a Strong National Highway Network.

“Most companies will make every effort to route trucks on non-toll routes,” says Spencer. “It’s generally not difficult, because there’s software for mapping, routing and everything else.”

“The only way I will travel on a toll road is if it’s the only way to get to where I need to go,” says independent owner-operator Michael Goodman of Chattanooga, Tenn.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Goodman “spent $28 for about 50 miles,” he says. “I just about had a cow when she told me how much that would be.” The increase added around 4 cents a mile in costs to his entire 777-mile route that day.

To avoid the Indiana Toll Road, both Goodman and owner-operator Johnnie Bond, leased to Landstar Ranger, take U.S. 20 instead. “The difference is only five miles,” says Bond, whose fleet does not reimburse him for tolls. A trip into Chicago via the I-80/90 Indiana Toll Road/Chicago Skyway route adds 19 cents a mile for a five-axle vehicle.

The privatized Chicago Skyway itself has become an alternate route in recent years for many motorists seeking to avoid the widening and reconstruction of the Kingery, Borman and Dan Ryan expressways into the city. But many truckers still shun it.

Roehl Transport, based in nearby Marshfield, Wis., encourages the use of E-ZPass transponders among its 117 owner-operators and reimburses them for most of their tolls, says program manager Dan Bennett. The Skyway is an exception, and not only because its toll is expensive. “It’s not a driver-friendly or equipment-friendly road,” Bennett says of the 49-year-old elevated roadway.

Building and maintaining those free alternate routes, however, may be ruled out by the “non-compete” clauses of some privatization contracts. The Chicago Skyway deal has no such clause, but the Indiana agreement sets up a 10-mile competition zone alongside the toll road. Within that zone, the state can add short, limited-access parallel roads, but it must compensate the private sector for lost toll revenue if it builds a long-distance road within the zone. U.S. 20 itself is barred from large improvements over any 20-mile section until 2061. Most current private projects in the early stages of development, including many in Texas, do the same.

TOLLING TO MANAGE TRAFFIC. For some carriers, toll routes have their advantages. The public Illinois Tollway Authority has implemented open-road tolling on I-294, the Tri-State Tollway, which loops around Chicago’s downtown, a move that Roehl’s Dan Bennett says has provided a fast alternate to the more direct, high-traffic route through downtown on I-94. On the Tri-State, “You’re adding 62 miles, but you eliminate 60-90 minutes” during high-traffic periods, Bennett says.

Via “congestion pricing,” the Skyway Concession Co. offers truckers incentive to run by night rather than by day. The peak-time five-axle toll of $1.08 per mile drops to 77 cents per mile from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

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