Tolls and Taxes: Another Perspective

COST Commentary: The article below reflects a contrasting viewpoint regarding toll roads than that often heard in heated discussions in Central Texas. In this case, a major and very congested U.S. highway in Virginia is on a path to be partially converted to a toll road. Although this type of “toll conversion” has not been done in Central Texas, “double taxation” seems to the at the heart of the local toll controversy.

The declining value of federal highway gas taxes which have remained unchanged for almost 2 decades, the substantial increase in engine fuel efficiency and the continuing diversion of highway funds to transit and other uses have resulted in the inability of almost all regions to increase road capacity to meet growing populations and to maintain roadways to acceptable levels.

Regions are considering different approaches to address critical and growing transportation needs. COST’s take-away is that this is one of the most critical issues in the nation and that citizens and leaders should remain objective and open to consider all creative and responsible ideas which will effectively address transportation needs. Consideration’s should not be arbitrarily limited by the past and how a road was originally paid for, but should consider current and future needs criticality and priority along with current funding reality.

A good example of a current, critical roadway need in Austin is more capacity on Mopac. With historical gas tax funding sources, it will take many years and maybe much more than a decade to address this need. The plan being considered is for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) to implement a new “managed” lane each way with borrowed funds. These new lanes could be implemented in a short time and would accommodate and significantly improve transit and carpooling. With its additional capacity, it would allow single vehicle drivers to pay a variable toll (users fee) which would be adjusted to keep the traffic in the lane moving at a minimum of say: 50 miles per hour. This lane would also enhance emergency vehicles. The current “free or tax paid” lanes would be relieved to provided greater mobility. And, neighborhood citizens would finally get the sound walls they have been promised for many years. The toll fees would provide the funds to maintain this stretch of Mopac.

This approach on Mopac seems to be a timely, “win-win” mobility improvement, meeting many needs. The lanes are being implemented on ground which was originally paid for with tax dollars: But, what good is the ground if the region has no money to implement added capacity? COST believes this is an example of the kinds of creative ideas necessary to effectively address critical mobility needs which have been ignored or given low priority for many years. Mobility is directly related to the quality-of-life of almost every citizen in the region. This seems to be the important issue and not an inflexible concept of double taxation.

This tolling situation was discussed in a section of ‘The Georgia Public Foundation’ “Friday Facts” dated 4-2–2012 as follows.

– Mobility options: Given the lack of voter or political will to raise taxes for infrastructure, we’re left with few choices if we want to escape congestion, according to Leonard Gilroy and Baruch Feigenbaum of the Reason Foundation. “That’s why the use of toll finance and [public-private partnerships, or PPPs] is expanding dramatically across the nation. Tolls are fairer than taxes, as those who benefit from the tolled facility pay for it as they use it. And tolling can put major projects into service years or decades sooner than waiting to accumulate enough scraps of tax dollars to fund them.”

In another Austin region example, the first two segments of the 183A toll road were opened in 2007. This too is not a 100% “clean” example in that some of the funding was by TxDot and some of the right of way was contributed by county governments, each from tax funds. The vast majority of the funding was raised by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) through the sale of investment bonds to the general public. The CTRMA, through contractors, built the toll road as well as “free” frontage roads for travelers in the area to use. My guess is that the free frontage roads costs at least as much as the “tax” funds provided by TxDot and the counties, but, it is not clear the bookkeeping got to this level. Nor, does it really matter. This 183A Toll Road improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of travelers and their families living in the region and those traveling through. Both those choosing to use 183 A and pay tolls (users’ fees) and those choosing to travel on the “tax paid,” or free, 183 and 183 A service roads experience substantially reduced congestion and save a total of hundreds of thousands of hours per week in travel time with reduced fuel expense. In addition, public transit buses use 183 A, improving transit users’ travel time and quality of life. Emergency vehicle response time is improved in many case.

Plans moving ahead for I-95 tolls Thursday – 4/19/2012, 5:29am ET

Hank Silverberg,

WASHINGTON – There could be some idea by the end of May where new toll facilities will be placed on Interstate 95 in Virginia, as well as an estimate on how much they might cost.

I-95 is one of the most congested highways in the country, and 45 percent of Virginia’s population lives near it. The Virginia Department of Transportation is moving ahead with plans to put at least two toll booths on the highway south of already-planned High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes.

VDOT’s Michael Estes says the most likely plan calls for placing a toll facility south of Fredericksburg and another south of Richmond. Estes says the current top option would be to construct towers across the roadway at the toll facilities to handle E-ZPass so vehicles using the pass would not have to stop. Cash-taking toll booths also would be built.

Estes says officials also are studying whether drivers will take some other route when the tolls go up.

“We’re looking at diversion as a big part of our analysis — how much traffic would be diverted onto local streets because of tolls,” he says.

Seventy-two percent of I-95 in Virginia needs to be repaved. The toll money is supposed to go only to maintenance of the existing highway, which has been neglected because of a lack of money over the last decade.

Still, Estes says officials are looking to see if some of that money can also be used to add capacity to the highway, as in new traffic lanes.

“We’re working through trying to define exactly what ‘capacity’ may or may not mean,” he says.

The federal government has to sign on to the construction of toll facilities on an interstate highway. VDOT expects to have an agreement with the federal government on the tolls by next winter.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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