For Whom the Turnpike Tolls

The 'free' part of freeways may be on the way out as the United States tries to maintain the 'way' portion.

Last week our Amy R. Ramos noted that the era of the "free" in freeways might be coming to an end. Further evidence comes from a commentary in the April issue of Public Works Management and Policy, which suggests that highway
tolling has entered the mainstream--at least when it comes to new freeways.

The piece’s author, C. Kenneth Orski, editor and publisher of the transportation newsletter Innovation NewsBriefs, made a similar prediction five years ago when he called for a “fresh look” at using tolls to pay for any new highway capacity. Citing the enormous and growing gap between what U.S. infrastructure needs just to maintain the status quo and the equally tremendous cost for new and improved roads, Orski rejects other funding sources as impractical and insufficient. (Clearly a pragmatist, he barely suggests muni bonds, a stance that now seems doubly prescient as the auction-rate market goes through the wringer.)

“The conclusion stems neither from an ideological preference for ‘privatization’ nor from a libertarian impulse to seek a reduced federal presence in the nation’s transportation program,” he writes. “Rather, it is grounded in the reality that every last cent that can be raised through the gas tax will be needed to maintain and modernize our aging highway infrastructure. Resorting to tolls and private capital to help finance future highway capacity is the best way to ensure the future growth of the nation’s surface highway network without imposing an unacceptable tax burden on the American people.”

Orski says a tipping point has been reached on both the ideological and commercial planes, as both the U.S. ransportation Department is flogging an Express Lanes Demonstration Program that encourages charging a toll on new roads or lanes that have been improved. In words that sent a chill through many hearts in California, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters wrote, “Of far greater promise than traditional gas taxes is direct pricing of road use similar to how people pay for other utilities.” Hence the interest in taxing interstates to build new ones ...

Orski also notes the promise of public-private partnerships to develop new highways and the allocation of $2.5 billion by California’s behemoth public employee pension plan for investments in infrastructure. Since infrastructure has never been seen as a revenue center for government, CalPERS must see some promise in tolling that eluded most everyone in years past.

Adding to the allure of tolls, at least from the bureaucratic side, has been an increased willingness to hike rates to beyond the point of just paying the bills.