Toll interoperability could set pattern for national road pricing - Ed Regan

May 22, 2011

Ed Regan, Wilbur Smith Associates' Chief Wonk and Futurist gained major attention at the recent IBTTA conference on interoperability in Dallas TX presenting a bold scenario to 2025. He sketched out how the toll systems now being developed to work nationwide - for 'interoperability' - could set the pattern for road use charges to eventually replace the gasoline tax, and become the main funding mechanism for roads.

Regan assumes that the IBTTA/ATI work will achieve national interoperability by 2016 as stated in hearings on Capitol Hill last month.

In the same next five years 2011-2016 budgetary constraints and unwillingness to impose higher taxes will drive a continued development of new toll facilities - mostly in urban areas and using all-electronic toll collection.

Many of these will be toll managed lanes (TML) with a mix of free and tolled lanes emerging as networks - they will be all-electronic or transponder-only.

Interstate tolling must come

Tolling of the interstates is the other big development, Regan sees, despite current political resistance.

Tolling interstates will be driven by the lack of any other revenue stream than tolls with the potential to support modernization and rebuilding of the interstates - work which Regan notes will be very much more expensive than their original cost.

An article he has with Steven Brown in the current issue of TOLLWAYS magazine points out that the original 1938 plan for the Interstates in President Roosevelt's time as enacted by the Congress called on the Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor of FHWA) to study them as toll roads.

And many of the early interstates were of course toll funded.

Toll-or-crumble choice

Regan sees interstate tolling as likely to be driven by initiatives by various states, on the basis that in the absence of any other funding source they will face a toll-or-crumble choice (our phrase, not Regan's.)

They'll toll the interstate, or it will just crumble away for lack of the big bucks needed to fix it.

The choice will be a no-brainer for the states with a proportion of through traffic on their interstates, and minimal purchase of fuel and little contribution to state revenues. 

And it will be a necessity elsewhere.

Regan thinks all restrictions on interstate tolling should, and will, be eliminated, leaving the implementation of tolls to state initiatives.

With the federal government unable to solve the problem of funding interstate reconstruction it will come to be seen that it must cease being an obstacle.

If they don't help, they shouldn't hinder

If the Feds can't fund, they can at least stop stopping the states doing their own funding with tolls - is the argument.

Critics of interstate tolling must be forced, Regan says, to confront the realistic alternative - the toll-or-crumble choice. The first toll-to-rebuild interstate projects will be launched before 2016, Regan thinks

Some more congestion charging will be applied - peak travel time toll premiums - and toll transponders will be used more for payment of parking fees.

2015 to 2020

Regan sees networks of toll managed lanes emerging in at least seven metro areas 2015-2020, and he names: Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, San Diego and Seattle.

In this period interstate toll-funded reconstruction "takes off," while there are some new straight toll projects in some metro areas.

The design of a national vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) begins.

2020 to 2025

Toll plazas have disappeared and cash toll collection becomes an exhibit at the Smithsonian museum.

Some new managed lane networks emerge but on others previously 'free' lanes are tolled, and they become full tollroads.

With major interstates reaching age 75 tolling them is happening in almost all the states.

There are limited new roads built, and they are almost entirely urban, (mostly outer urban?)

Some of the larger cities are doing congestion charge zones or cordon pricing.

Toll systems are widely used for paying parking and other applications.

Regan sees a national VMT beginning to be phased in during this period.

After 2025

After 2025 pricing becomes ubiquitous and what started as a national toll system becomes recognized as a national road pricing system.

Tolling is increasingly by transponder (or GPS), all toll plazas are gone and video tolling "is no longer needed."

Tolling is accepted politically and conflicts are limited to how far toll revenues are dedicated to the road on which they are collected.

Transponder numbers

Regan showed a slide labeled "Rough Guess" on likely numbers of transponders in  use. He has them going from 40m in 2010 to 60m in 2015 about half the growth being toll managed lanes, another half new toll facilities. By 2025 there are 95m, just over half of which are now adopted on account of new uses - interstate tolling, parking, congestion charge zones, and managed lane networks.

2020 to 2025 the biggest growth is interstate tolling and the total go over 120m.

The percentage of American vehicles with toll accounts goes from about 15% now to 40% in 2025.

At the end he posed "Some Interesting Questions" including:

-  the possibility that license plate reads might take over from transponders rather than the other way around

- possible factory installation of transponders

- value added services could have "immense" potential

COMMENT: Regan's paper is an important contribution to thinking about where US tolling is headed. We might quibble a bit here and there but it seems a very reasonable broadbrush picture of the future.

He didn't get into the likely future governance structure of roads - the extent to which new toll facilities might be investor-owned (PPPs etc) or else be state or local government operations run by separate toll authorities or by state DOTs.

Maybe there will be all these forms, and even some new ones?

We're not clear about the role of a national vehicle mile traveled (VMT) charge.

If all the interstates are tolled then this major class of road is being looked after with its own toll revenues - and the  biggest former federal funding responsibility is gone.

What exactly is the purpose of a national VMT?

It isn't clear why less-than-expressway roads such as signalized arterials and rural surface roads - let alone lower levels of roads - need to be a federal responsibility at all. State and local governments could take responsibility and apply vehicle-miles or toll charges on such roads.

Or they could use local taxes.

It isn't logical that local streets rely on road use charges.

Such streets do far more than serve cars. They house a great array of utilities - water, sewer, storm water drainage, electricity, gas, telecom cables.

They provide for trash pickup, parking, construction and service access, pedestrians, cyclists, dogs and trees. They provide a 'face' to buildings and provide an easement for sunlight at the front of buildings.

There are so many of them, VMT on such local streets may be substantial in aggregate but trivial on each street.

VMT on streets, we'd suggest is not worth measuring and wrong as the basis for funding.

Local streets are a classic for local government. They are well suited to be kept up with home owner fees or city or county property taxes.

A national VMT providing federal funds carries the hazard of supporting a plethora of quasi-corrupt  Congressionally earmarked projects, undermining local responsibility and breaking a necessary link between the revenues each road is generating and the support of that road - editor.

TOLLROADSnews 2011-05-22

Further Reading

Leave a comment:

Upcoming Events