Is USDOT Backing Away From Tolling Programs?

USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood last week stated fairly clearly that tolling should be allowed only for adding capacity, reports TollRoadsnews (Sec LaHood, Mica agree – no tolls on interstates except for extra pavement).  If so, that would be a significant step back from current federal policy, which in limited ways allows tolling (congestion pricing) for better management of existing roads (for example, HOT lanes, congestion management)  as well as reconstruction.  As of 2008 there were about 40 congestion pricing projects under construction or study in the U.S. according to the Congressional Budget Office (“Using Pricing to Reduce Traffic Congestion”, March 2009).

Congestion pricing can “even out” traffic by charging drivers a higher toll for use of a highway at times or places with heavy traffic and a lower toll in the opposite circumstances.  The CBO report observes that “evidence from various projects indicates that congestion pricing reduces congestion.”  In New York City for example, a congestion pricing project on six bridges and tunnels reduced peak morning commute traffic by 7% compared with that in the previous year, and reduced peak evening traffic by 4%, while overall traffic volume remained the same. The report reviews offers policy perspectives for Congress to consider when writing a new surface transportation bill.

Funding and financing transportation projects will become even more challenging if the Administration continues to oppose a gas tax increase and a retreat from current tolling policy.  Narrowing the policy also would seem to incentivize the building of more lanes, instead of looking to innovative ways to manage traffic through tolling.  And expanding highways is problematic in many cities – even if there’s room for new lanes, community and environment opposition would likely stop or seriously delay many projects.

Meanwhile, declining state transportation revenue and a reduction in travelers are causing some agencies to increase toll rates to pay for improvement and maintenance projects, USA Today reports (Drivers face more toll increases).  A growing number of the 100 toll agencies in 31 states are moving moved to scheduled increases to ensure funds for maintenance.

Some agencies are implementing smaller annual hikes (Denver’s E-470 toll will increase annually for a total of 25 cents, instead of waiting for a 25 cent increase in year three.) Other agencies will charge cash customers more while electronic tolling customers receive a smaller increase.  Some agencies are increasing the toll for multiple-axle vehicles, and others are simply increasing a toll by a dollar or so.

Last summer I wrote about how states were increasingly looking to tolling as a means of funding and financing transportation: “Tolling Expanding In Response To Tough Economy?”