Toll Roads Offer an Innovative Approach to Avoiding Gas Tax Hikes
By Mark Todd Engler If it seems like your daily commute is getting longer and traffic keeps getting worse, it’s probably not just your imagination. A recent study by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation concluded that Tennesseans spend about 47 million hours stuck in traffic. Only 11 states need more miles of new roadway in order to alleviate gridlock and other traffic concerns, according to the study. Fortunately, Gov. Phil Bredesen and several state lawmakers are demonstrating commendable leadership and vision by calling for a serious examination of how toll roads and other highway user-fees might help fund improvements to Tennessee’s inadequate road system without hiking gas taxes. Toll roads make sense for a number of reasons: They can ease congestion, offer motorists more route choices, protect the environment from gridlock-spawned carbon waste and shift the burden of paying for road use directly to consumers. Flexible toll pricing enables traffic planners to effectively combat traffic snarl-ups and reduce the exhaust pollution created by cars trapped in congestion. This is no small benefit: Americans burn 2.3 billion gallons of fuel each year idling in jammed traffic, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. By reducing prices for road access during periods when traffic is lightest, toll-road managers can incentivize drivers to travel at off-peak times. This means less traffic—and quicker commutes—during rush hours. Another promising way for the state to improve congestion through user-fees involves converting existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes now reserved for carpoolers into toll lanes. On some roads in Virginia and California, drivers of both single- and multi-occupant vehicles can opt to pay a fee to access the transformed HOV lanes and bypass bumper-to-bumper traffic. Of course, drivers who choose not to use toll lanes shave driving time as well, because more vehicles are diverted into previously underutilized carpool lanes. Relieving congestion headaches and stunting squandered emissions are reason enough to start examining user-funded roads. But Tennessee also faces another reason for considering toll roads: a growing need for new road construction. The Tennessee Department of Transportation anticipates a huge shortfall in new construction funding over the next 10 years. A study by TRIP, a Washington D.C.-based transportation research group, determined that Tennessee needs additional lane capacity along 239 miles of the state’s existing interstate highway system by 2016. “Clearly, long term, we’re going to have to find some way to close the gap between needs and our current capacity,” TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely told the Senate Transportation Committee during a March 28 hearing. Amplifying projected funding shortages is the irony that the rising popularity of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles will only siphon money from the gas-tax tank. In the legislature, the toll road discussion has bipartisan support with Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, driving discussion in the House and Diane Black, R-Gallatin, pushing an innovative pilot project in the Senate. All told, toll roads and private-public transportation partnerships are clearly “the way of the future” in highway construction funding, as Pinion, the Tennessee House Transportation Committee chairman, noted during a meeting recently. Bredesen, Pinion, Black and other policymakers willing to propel creative discussions about the implementation of toll roads in the Volunteer State are to be applauded. Hopefully their progressive thinking accelerates a high-octane policy conversation steered at providing Tennesseans better driving conditions and choices, while bypassing the wasted time, frustration and pollution of a thickening congestion quagmire.