WASHINGTON – Get ready, drivers. With gas tax revenue stagnant and transportation funds scarce, states are turning to toll roads in 2018 to fill treasuries and manage traffic – despite outrage from motorists and questions about the efficiency of tolls.
The full list of new tolls is hard to track, but at least half a dozen states from Florida to Colorado are slapping tolls on roads that used to be free or building toll-only lanes this year, and many more are expected to do so next year. It all shows how, despite the nation’s relatively robust economy, even the most basic state services – providing roadways, bridges and tunnels – are still being squeezed.
With infrastructure crumbling, budgets teetering on the edge of being in the red in many states, and the growing popularity of fuel-efficient cars, which means gas taxes generate less revenue than they used to, officials are looking to tolls. Giving a boost to the efforts, President Donald Trump’s initial infrastructure proposal also called for widespread use of tolling on interstate highways, which now are limited by federal regulations to certain stretches of road.
Bill Cramer of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association said the lack of funding from gas taxes is “100 percent” of the reason tolls are being imposed or going up. “Local governments are seeing this as a viable and useful option,” Cramer said. “It pays for the road, provides a steady stream of revenue to maintain that road at high quality and safety. And they have been very reluctant to raise the gas tax that would fund those roads.”
Nineteen states have waited a decade or more since last increasing their gas tax rates. Another 13 states have gone at least 2 decades according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a progressive think tank that keeps track of fuel taxes. The 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax, which also helps pay for roads, has not been raised since 1993.
“The money for the roads has to come from somewhere,” said Carl Davis, the research director for the institute. “In some cases, tolls are the path of least resistance.”
And for states that have chosen to raise fuel taxes in the past few years, it’s arguably harder for lawmakers to go back to that well again so soon, again making tolls attractive. Even the higher gas taxes in many states are insufficient to address infrastructure needs.
Florida, for example, indexes its gas tax to inflation, so it goes up a minuscule amount every year. Last year it went up one-tenth of 1 percent, to 36.59 cents a gallon, including local taxes.
This year, the state will open two new toll roads in the Jacksonville area: express lanes along I-295, and state Road 23, known as the First Coast Expressway, which will extend south from Jacksonville into suburban Clay County.
In Illinois, the Illinois Tollway began charging for state Route 390, known as the Elgin-O’Hare, as part of the Elgin O’Hare Western Access Project, in 2016. The project repaired Route 390 and extended the road near the west edge of Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The next phase of the project will connect the road to interstates 90 and 294 on the north and south of the airport. The road is intended for electronic toll drivers only.
Electronic tolling has made collecting tolls faster and easier, with drivers often unaware of how much the transponder in their car is charging them.
A report by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association showed the number of trips taken by drivers on tolls roads increased 14 percent, from 5 billion trips in 2011 to 5.7 billion in 2015. The association also noted a 20 percent increase in electronic tolling over that time period. The Federal Highway Administration, in a separate report, found a 9 percent increase in overall toll road mileage within the United States, from 5,400 miles in 2011 to 5,900 miles as of 2013.
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