Interstate Tolling Could Be the Answer to Generate Transportation Revenue

AASHTO Journal, 28 October 2011

DETROIT — Could tolling become a viable option for helping states fund an aging transportation system? That was one of the questions state transportation officials discussed during a roundtable discussion at the 2011 AASHTO Annual Meeting.Robert Poole, Jr., director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation, led the discussion that explored a number of issues regarding interstate tolling, including the advantages of tolling over a gas tax, political feasibility, the importance of public-private partnerships in tolling projects, and previous successful interstate tolling projects.

However, a majority of the discussion focused on the feasibility of tolling the interstate, and whether the public would be accepting of this option.

“If you ask the public if they want the gas tax raised, they say ‘no,'” Poole said. “If you ask if they want tolls, they say ‘no.’ However, when asked which of the two they prefer if they had to choose one over the other, the majority preferred tolls over a tax.”

While the issue of tolling the interstate in certain areas is not a new one, it has been a topic revived because of the nation’s inadequate transportation infrastructure funding. States are looking at new ways to generate revenue in order to repair and/or build new infrastructure to keep up with demand. Historically a hot-button issue, tolling may begin to gain some traction in the as funding everywhere continues to decrease.

“I think the tolling dynamics have changed for us in North Carolina,” said Gene Conti, North Carolina Department of Transportation secretary. “It’s more favorable now than it once was. I think people are getting that they may not get transportation improvements without tolling.”

However, political opposition is one of the hurdles state DOTs must contend with regarding tolling. While some state governments see tolling as a viable option up for discussion, others have been vocal about opposition to tolls.

In order to gain support for tolling, Poole suggested that any interstate tolling project must add value; that is, bring something new and extra to users. Tolls cannot simply be placed on an existing highway without adding new value to it. Value can be added in the form of an entirely new highway, major capacity additions to an existing highway, or major reconstruction of an existing highway.

Conti agreed with Poole on the idea that there must be some sort of new benefit to any new tolls.

“Maybe we need to focus on this ‘premium service’ concept,” Conti said. “Could showing that there is value added change any opposition?”

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