Stop: pay toll

| September 01, 2006

The Indiana Toll Road is a major east-west truck route.

Beside old U.S. 40 in the Alleghenies sits the LaVale Toll Gate House – “the last remaining in Maryland,” tourism officials say. Built in 1836, when U.S. 40 was the National Road, it collected tolls until about 1900. Now it just attracts tourists, who admire the sign listing the fees levied on 19th-century freight haulers: “For every Cart or wagon whose wheels exceed three inches and does not exceed four inches in breadth for every horse or pair of oxen drawing the same – 4 cents.”

This may seem quaint to tourists, but to the state of Maryland, tolling is the way of the future. In May, Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced final federal approval for the Intercounty Connector, an 18-mile, five-lane road between I-370 and I-95. Like many new road projects, Ehrlich’s “highway of opportunity” will be a toll road. All-electronic collections will recoup part of the project’s $2.4 billion budget. The state already has seven toll facilities, including the Bay Bridge and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.

Maryland isn’t alone. The federal Government Accountability Office reported in June that half the states have toll roads or plan to use them to deal with exorbitant road-building price tags.

Tolls aren’t the only “user fees” that fund highways. Fuel taxes and heavy-truck taxes are user fees, too, and so are the taxes on vehicle miles that some experts advocate. But tolls are by far the oldest and most familiar way to fund roads; and today, tolls are part of the conversation in just about every new road project.

Speaking at a national conference in March, Texas state Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said: “Sooner or later, I think all the major states will realize that all major new transportation infrastructure will have to be financed by some sort of direct user fee – namely, tolls.”

THE P3 LURE
Many of the new toll roads are being proposed by private companies that offer to design, finance and build roads on the government’s behalf, in exchange for toll revenue once the projects are done. In Georgia, for example, an investment bank, a law firm and an engineering firm have proposed financing and designing two truck-only toll lanes in each direction along the northwest quadrant of I-285 in Atlanta.

In theory, such public-private partnerships, or “P3s,” will mean faster road building at less cost to the taxpayer. The Bush administration wants more states to join the 19 that already allow such initiatives, which are encouraged by the 2005 federal transportation act.

Government no longer can be the nation’s only road builder, Norman Mineta bluntly told a June 29 gathering of state transportation officials in Washington, D.C., a week before he stepped down as U.S. transportation secretary. Private businesses must be full partners in planning, funding, construction and management, he said.

“The tide is turning,” Mineta said. Wall Street investors, contractors and state DOTs “are waking up to the exciting prospect” offered by these partnerships, which are controversial only “if you’re wedded to the status quo.”

Earlier that week, Rick Capka, federal highway administrator, made a presentation before the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. Capka told the commissioners the Federal Highway Trust Fund is no longer self-sufficient.

States “are looking for more reliable alternatives,” Capka said. “There is an opportunity for the private sector to get involved.”

In the past year, state DOTs and local metropolitan planning organizations have aggressively pursued such arrangements because of simple practicality, says Richard Norment, executive director of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, a group supported by such business giants as engineering firm Bechtel and investment bankers Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Bechtel has its own Atlanta-area proposal, for an expansion of I-75 north.

Increased fuel taxes are deemed politically unacceptable, says Patrick Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll-facility operators worldwide. Therefore, in the face of “growing congestion and unmet transportation needs

Comments are closed.

OverdriveOnline.com strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.