TOLLS ARE about as popular as cancer. And, like the aforementioned disease, tolls aren’t going away.
A common complaint against tolls is that if a road has already been paid for and built, no tolls should be added—that would be double taxation.
While that is true, there are exceptions to the rule (aren’t there always?).
A recent report by the Congressional Research Services on tolls points out those exceptions, along with highlighting the good and bad aspects of tolls.
While the federally funded interstate system was required to have “freedom from tolls,” the report notes that so many exceptions have been added to the rule now that “the vast majority of federal-aid roads and bridges” could qualify to be tolled.
With that interesting note, as well as the growth of electronically tolled express lanes in the Fredericksburg region and to the north, it should come as no surprise that tolls are considered a somewhat appealing option to pay for the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
The report says the current funding source, primarily the federal fuels tax, is not keeping up with the needs of the transportation system. That funding stream is on pace to fall behind by tens of billions of dollars by 2025.
As a result, the report notes that some members of Congress “see an expansion of tolling as a way to reduce the need for federal expenditures on roads.”
The report points out the recent growth in public–private toll roads, and highlights numerous struggles and the outright failures of some of these projects.
One struggling toll road is the express lanes on Interstate 95 in Maryland. Those express lanes haven’t generate the usage or profits expected and are struggling to recoup the $1.1 billion investment.
Another poor project was the Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond. That 8.8-mile toll road opened in 2002, but the operator (Transurban, which operates the I–95 express lanes in our neck of the woods) gave up on the failing toll road and transferred the lease to another operator in 2012, according to the report.
Regardless of such issues, there are success stories. The I–95 express lanes that stretch into Stafford have generated much use and revenue since opening in December 2014.
According to the Congressional Research Services report, more than 1,000 miles of toll roads have been added to the U.S. road system since 1990. Much of that toll growth has happened on interstates, where 60 percent of the tolled roads, bridges and tunnels already exist.
And the interstate system is the target zone for more tolls.
A federal pilot program geared toward adding tolls on interstates was created several years ago. Virginia was one of three states chosen to take part.
As part of the program, in 2012 the Virginia Department of Transportation proposed tolling I–95 in Sussex County near the North Carolina border. But intense backlash scuttled those plans. No other plans have resurfaced.
The report notes a couple of approaches that could lead to adding tolls to the interstate system.
In one case, Congress could require tolls on rebuilt sections of roadway. This could lead to a “nationwide per-mile toll network.”
The report also looks at the potential of tolling the entire interstate system, something which could generate an estimated $112 billion a year. This option, the report notes, would cost drivers much more than they currently pay through the federal fuels tax.
The costs of converting the interstate system appear to be prohibitive—somewhere between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. And, the report says, it could take 10 to 15 years before revenue from such a toll system would be realized.
However you slice it, though, tolls are likely a growing part of our future.