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Allowing States the Option of Using Tolls Is a Good Idea | Commentary

A provision in the GROW AMERICA Act, introduced to Congress last month by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, proposes lifting a decades-old ban on tolling existing interstate general purpose lanes.

Recent opposition to the proposal in these pages is shortsighted.

Relying on revenues derived from the gas tax is simply an unsustainable way of funding our nation’s aging roads, bridges and tunnels now and for the foreseeable future. With the math not adding up (incoming revenue ? costs of infrastructure maintenance and upgrade), tolls deserve to be part of every transportation policy discussion in Washington, D.C., and in every state house.

States should be allowed to consider all options including the use of tolls on interstates to help cover the funding gap. And here’s why:

First, drivers aren’t averse to tolls. Surprised? Me, too.

Like you, I’ve never met anyone who likes to pay a toll, but data suggest a sizable majority of motorists are willing to pay so they can get home, to work or to their kid’s soccer practice on time.

A nationwide HNTB Corporation survey of 1,000 drivers last year found that 71 percent would be willing to pay a toll if it resulted in faster, more reliable transport to their destination. The survey also found that 70 percent favored their state’s department of transportation having the option to add tolls to major structures to keep them in good shape (exactly what GROW AMERICA proposes).

Second, traditional gas taxes, unchanged for decades, haven’t kept up with inflation and don’t have the same purchasing power as they once did. It simply costs more to build or repair a bridge today than it did in 1993, which was the last time the federal government increased the gas tax to the current 18.3 cents a gallon. And though there are more cars on the roads today, they operate more efficiently. Most motorists don’t fill up as often.

Fewer fill-ups mean less tax revenue. But more cars and trucks mean increased congestion and faster wear and tear on roads, bridges and tunnels. In this environment, tolls give transportation agencies a tool to address the sustainability and safety of our region’s critical infrastructure by using toll revenue to improve our transportation infrastructure.

Third, the resiliency of our nation’s road, tunnel and bridge infrastructure is suffering. A recent analysis of 2013 National Bridge Inventory database maintained by the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that each day, almost a quarter-billion cars, trucks and school buses cross more than 63,000 structurally compromised bridges.

Lastly, technology has evolved far beyond gated lanes and coin machines. Paying tolls electronically, using interoperable systems such as E-ZPass, SunPass or through a pay-by-plate, is safer, more efficient, lowers CO2 emissions and keeps traffic flowing.

Members of Congress from congested urban areas, such as Miami, Dallas, Atlanta, San Diego and others are already familiar with Express Lanes, tolling technology’s latest evolution. These lanes, such as the 495 Express Lanes on the west side of the Capital Beltway, improve mobility by allowing single-occupant vehicles to use excess capacity otherwise reserved for high-occupancy vehicles, all while maintaining traffic flow at highway speeds. Tolling in these lanes is dynamic: As more vehicles enter the Express Lanes the price goes up, discouraging others from entering the lanes until usage ebbs. Motorists decide if their time is worth the added cost to use the lanes. These managed lanes offer a choice, allowing drivers to get where they need to go faster and more reliably. For a fee.

There are also plenty of good examples of how toll revenues are used to support transit in the same corridor. The Dulles Toll Road is just one local example of how a toll road can fund the development of a multi-modal corridor. Other tolled facilities, such as I-15 in San Diego, use revenues to support rapid bus transit along the same corridor.

Technology’s advance also is making distance-based pricing viable. Imagine scrapping the gas tax altogether and paying only for the miles you drive? This concept is being studied in Oregon today.

Tolling naysayers are entitled to their viewpoints and counterpoints, but the fact is our infrastructure is in dire need of billions of dollars of improvement. We should consider forward-thinking options, such as tolling, to help pay these enormous costs, and offer motorists a way to get where they need to go with less congestion and more reliability.

New technologies and techniques present state and federal policy makers with tools to help solve a vexing problem: the maintenance and improvement of transportation infrastructure that is vital to our nation’s economy.

Relying on Congress during an election year to replenish the Highway Trust Fund with an increase of the gas tax or closure of tax loopholes is simply unrealistic. Add to this the evolution of technology which enables tolls to be collected safely and efficiently without stopping and it’s time to face reality and come out from behind the veil of an anti-toll animus.

All options are — and should be — on the table as transportation leaders discuss creative approaches to improve our mobility and our economy. President Barack Obama and his administration are facing reality: Real problems with our infrastructure require real solutions including real choices.

Daniel Papiernik is mid-Atlantic toll practice leader for HNTB Corporation in Arlington.