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Fueled by Tolling, Innovation Stems From Our Local Communities

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This is a response to a recent blog entry on The Atlantic Cities, titled "The End of Federal Transportation Funding as We Know It."

The funding crunch facing America's transportation infrastructure has made it crucial for our cities, counties, states and regions to find innovative ways of funding our mobility. The Federal Highway Trust Fund -- the federal government's primary source of investment in local infrastructure -- is running dry, with the gas tax losing much of its purchasing power since its last increase more than two decades ago. It is a transportation funding crisis that has been documented widely, and continues to be investigated. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) latest report card, it's only getting worse. Highways were included in the unfortunate but accurate D+ score for U.S. public infrastructure while bridges earned a C+ and roads a D.

It is a crisis moment for America's roadways, tunnels and bridges -- and it's precisely during these crunches American ingenuity and creativity have paved the way to a silver lining. Throughout the country -- in more than 30 states -- the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) is seeing new, creative transportation funding solutions taking place right before our eyes.

In major U.S. cities from San Francisco to Boston, local authorities are taking steps to adopt cost-effective, innovative tolling systems to fund vital infrastructure while getting drivers to their destinations safely and reliably. Pulling strongly against the crumbling infrastructure trend described in the ASCE report card, America's toll roads work, and work well, because they have the money to deliver safe, reliable mobility.

In contrast to the deteriorating systems behind the ASCE report card:

  • The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) uses a sophisticated maintenance rating program to enforce a high performance standard for its 850 lane miles of highway.
  • The Illinois Tollway earned 86 percent customer support for a major toll increase because customers understood the urgent need to reinvest in existing infrastructure -- the roads they already drive every day.

Meanwhile, new technology is transforming tolling from a mobility barrier to a gateway to greater efficiency and speed; continued reliance on the gas tax is now the largest impediment to ensuring the upkeep our nation's roadways.

Tolling once meant "stop," with motorists paying their tolls at a toll booth. But today's high-tech tolling means "go, go, go." On March 27, the Bay Area's Golden Gate Bridge opened a new chapter in its 76-year history, with an all-electronic tolling (AET) system that allows drivers to move freely through the toll plaza at regular speed, without stopping. And the Golden Gate isn't the only local success story. AET is a growing trend in major cities across the country. Boston's Tobin Bridge is on track to convert to an all-electronic tolling system, and New Jersey's Garden State Parkway may make the move next summer. Already, the revenue from tolling of all kinds is behind dozens of other success stories.

Toll roads are a shining example of everything we expect our highways to be: fast, safe, reliable, cost-effective. And late last year, a study by the Reason Foundation showed that the cost of a mature all-electronic toll collection system is comparable with the collection costs associated with the gas tax.

But there is a crucial difference between the two funding methods: While many legislators are allergic to increasing the gas tax, highway users readily accept user financing when they can see the tolls they pay supporting improvements to the roads they drive. That's why the Illinois Tollway and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority both earned strong public support for significant, needed toll rate increases.

In the end, you get what you pay for, and in America today, the prevailing transportation funding system is deficient. So we shouldn't be surprised that many of the best-built, best-maintained highways operate on the user-pay principle and rely on a dedicated funding source: tolls.

Our transportation system is incredibly diverse, and no single funding solution is appropriate in every circumstance. State and local governments, consulting with their constituents, are in the best position to pick the funding methods that work best for them. But here's the other gateway we need: to trigger a cascade of essential local activity, Congress should recognize tolling as part of a wider toolbox of funding options by lifting the ban on tolling interstate highways.

Local officials are starving for the type of funding flexibility that tolling offers. Against a backdrop of budget shortfalls at both the state and federal levels, they are seeking creative approaches to funding their roads and highways. They recognize the value tolling brings to cash-strapped states. Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear recently told the New York Times: "There's not a major bridge project in the country that doesn't involve the use of tolls and other creative financing mechanisms."

A more flexible approach to funding would also unleash the kind of variation David King attributes to decentralized systems. And that variation would trigger a flurry of innovation as communities find their own solutions to a common problem. IBTTA already knows that tolling is a tool in the toolbox, with at least four distinct business models that respond to specific local needs and circumstances:

  • Cross-state toll roads that were built from the 1930s through the 1950s
  • Circumferential, urban arterial roads that began appearing in the 1970s to serve a growing suburban population
  • Managed express lanes that have been introduced more recently to address congestion in major metropolitan areas
  • Private toll road development in a handful of jurisdictions.

This wide diversity within the tolling industry, combined with the rise of all-electronic tolling technology, opens up new opportunities for jurisdictions to take greater control over the transportation infrastructure on which economic and community development depend.

States and local authorities are leading the way in teaching us how to better fund the safe, reliable mobility that every American counts on. But if they had more opportunity to experiment with user financing and learn from each other's success, we would have far more innovation, faster. And that, in turn, would deliver safer, more efficient mobility at every step along the way, to keep Americans and businesses prosperous and growing.

This blog post first appeared on InfrastructureUSA where it is also cross-posted