Guest Columnist

Tolling is valuable tool in transportation funding toolbox

Traffic travels on Interstate 80, seen from Half Moon Ave SW south of Tiffin on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Traffic travels on Interstate 80, seen from Half Moon Ave SW south of Tiffin on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The American Trucking Associations has called on Congress to increase diesel and gasoline taxes by 20 cents a gallon to replenish the Federal Highway Trust Fund and rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. In an Op-Ed in The Gazette last Sunday, Chris Spear, ATA’s president and CEO, made the argument for increasing fuel taxes by quoting former President Ronald Reagan.

As the representative of the tolling industry, my association agrees with the conservative principles advanced by Reagan that paying for our transportation system should not increase the federal deficit nor add to the taxes we will all pay and that users of the system should be the ones to pay for it. That’s exactly the role that tolling plays across the country.

Like most other transportation associations, we support efforts to replenish the Highway Trust Fund by increasing the fuel tax. We also need more access to tolling, which is why President Donald Trump has called for lifting the ban on tolling interstate highways for the purpose of reconstruction. Lifting this ban would allow states and localities to make the best decisions to meet their own transportation challenges. However, in making his pitch to invest more in highways, Spear felt the need to criticize the tolling industry with misleading and erroneous statements. We’re here to set the record straight.

Spear denigrates highway tolls as a “fake funding scheme.” This is clearly inaccurate and misleading. The tens of millions of Americans who make 5.7 billion trips annually on America’s 6,200 miles of toll roads, bridges, and tunnels in 35 states clearly don’t think highway tolls are a fake funding scheme. Some of the highest capacity, interstate-quality highways in America would never have been built without tolling. Indeed, most of Spear’s trucking company members use toll roads every day to deliver products to market because toll roads are the safest roads in the country and provide superior service in terms of safety, reliability, and operational certainty.

He misleads again when he says that “as much as 35 cents of every dollar is wasted on administrative and overhead costs rather than on road maintenance.” Toll collection costs were higher in 1982—36 years ago — the year Spear says Ronald Reagan and the nation “last faced deteriorating infrastructure.” In 1982, toll collection was manual — in other words, you stopped at a barrier to hand your money to a person. Today, most tolls are collected electronically at highway speeds, the cost of collection has dropped significantly, and this trend will continue.

Simply comparing the cost of collecting tolls versus fuel taxes ignores one of the most fundamental cost advantages of toll finance: the time value of money. If we were to build a 50-mile toll road today, we would issue debt (much like a mortgage on your home) and use the debt financing to build the entire road all at once, perhaps in as little as two years. If we were to build that same road using fuel taxes, it would probably take us at least 10 years or more to complete the project because only a small portion of the fuel tax revenue would be available each year through annual or biannual state and federal appropriations. The longer construction period would be accompanied by increases in the cost of labor, materials, equipment, and delays for all motorists who are forced to operate their vehicles in a construction zone for eight more years.

Finally, Spear misleads the public about the typical cost of tolling when he says that “the toll for driving 10 miles on I-66 express lanes in Northern Virginia hit a ridiculous peak of $47.” This statement confuses a “priced managed lane” with a typical toll road. There is a difference. The toll on a typical toll road like the New Jersey Turnpike is a fixed price and is used to retire the debt on that road and pay for the ongoing maintenance and operation of the toll road.

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In the case of the I-66 express lanes, we are talking about “priced managed lanes,” not typical toll lanes. These priced managed lanes were designed for the specific purpose of taming congestion to ensure that traffic flows smoothly at a minimum speed of 50 mph or higher. In this case, the toll increases as congestion increases and falls as congestion falls. The $47 figure that Mr. Spear cites is the peak toll that very few people pay. In fact, only .08% of express lane trips paid a toll higher than $40. The Virginia Department of Transportation data show that the average round-trip price on the I-66 express lanes for the month of January 2018 was $12.37, $8.07 eastbound and $4.30 westbound. Out of 594,381 trips in January, only 461 trips were priced at $40 or more, or 0.08% of all express lane trips.

It’s unfortunate that Spear insists on making misleading and erroneous statements about tolling in his quest to increase fuel taxes and strengthen the Federal Highway Trust Fund. We won’t solve our nation’s infrastructure funding crisis using only fuel tax supported roads or only toll roads. We need both. While tolling isn’t the only solution, it is a proven and valuable tool in the toolbox that works very well under the right circumstances. There are no free roads. Tackling our complex transportation challenges will require honest dialogue, not scare tactics and falsehoods.

• Patrick Jones is executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

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