WASHINGTON – Drivers who are sick of rush-hour gridlock may one day soon be able to buy their way out by paying to get into toll road lanes.
That's the goal of some environmental and transportation groups,one of which made a sweeping call Tuesday for highway planners to consider tolls as an option for every new U.S. road.
Led by the International Bridge,Tunnel and Turnpike Association,lobbyists said toll roads would help improve under-funded transportation projects by connecting them to private investors' capital.
“There's a transportation funding crisis in this country,” said Patrick D. Jones,the association's executive director. “There are not enough funds in this country to support the infrastructure we have today.”
Tolls are not the solution for all new roads,but they are an option that should always be considered,Jones said.
“Tolling provides an effective and politically acceptable way to begin to address our nation's infrastructure needs,” he said,adding that investors are poised to spend $40 billion on U.S. toll roads.
Dating back to Greek mythology,toll roads or turnpikes have been used throughout history to ensure upkeep of property and compensate landowners or local rulers. Early toll roads in the U.S. included the Lancaster turnpike in the early 1790s,which connected Philadelphia to the town about 60 miles away.
The U.S. has 5,200 miles of toll roads,according to the U.S. Department of Transportation,and a proposed Texas superhighway system could double that number.
Drawing intense criticism,the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor would pave up to 8,000 miles of highway and take up 1.6 million acres. The toll roads would mostly parallel existing highways and skirt cities.
Opposition to the Texas proposal comes from groups saying the project will serve business interests,not Texans.
“The corridor is not being driven by traffic needs,” said David K. Stall,co-founder of CorridorWatch.org. “It's strictly being driven to generate revenue from traffic.”
The Trans-Texas Corridor would sandwich car lanes between truck lanes,Stall said. This eliminates the possibility of regular access ramps,forcing the construction of more expensive bridge interchanges.
“There are no cost controls because the operators are going to recover the revenue in tolls,” Stall said. “And the higher toll fees will get passed on to the consumer.”
Funding for road upkeep,which comes from gasoline tax revenue,falls far short of needs. In 2006 this gap will reach $50 billion,according to a study by the National Chamber Foundation of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The public's mentality about access to roadways will soon shift,say toll road advocates. Neil D. Schuster,president of Intelligent Transportation Society of America,said highway access will soon be considered in the same way people think of a seat on a bus or train – not a guaranteed public resource but rather a product for sale.
“We're no longer going to be road users,” Schuster said. “We're going to be road consumers.”
Advances in technology such as radio frequency toll systems like the E-ZPass are creating the infrastructure for a new wave of tollbooths,he said.
“Technology is changing how we drive,” Schuster said.
Environmental advocates said toll roads can make highways more efficient. “Smart use of tolls can cut traffic congestion,clean the air and help finance clean transportation choices,” said Michael A. Replogle,transportation director of Environmental Defense,which works to make practical environmental improvements.
“Everybody can benefit if we manage the toll revenues well,” he said.
In Western Europe and Australia,investors are spending billions on private toll roads,said Geoffrey F. Segal,director of privatization at the libertarian think tank Reason. In those countries the toll road business has moved to a “concession model,” in which investors pay upfront for long-term management rights.