Toll Roads Rising: Why There Will Be More Tolls Down the Road

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We are living through what one transportation expert calls a “renaissance in tolling.” What that means for American drivers is that they’ll face higher and higher tolls on roads, and more toll roads period.

Glance at almost any U.S. road map and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a road where the cost of tolls have been jacked up. Tolls have increased in recent months on roads in Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas, to name just a few states.

In some cases, drivers are encountering tolls where the only cost used to be their gas money (which includes gas taxes that pay for roads and infrastructure). Starting October 15, a previously toll-free section of the Massachusetts Turnpike will be subjected to tolls. In other instances, tollsters are getting creative, giving drivers access to express lanes only if they’re willing to pay higher tolls than the rest of traffic—just such a plan has been approved for expansion in South Florida.

Florida, in fact, is “considered the No. 1 toll state with over 700 miles of toll facilities that generate in excess of $1.2 billion a year in revenues,” according to James Ely, the former head of the Florida Turnpike and current senior vice president and chairman of toll services for the civil engineering firm HNTB, in a recent conversation with the Orlando Sentinel.

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In a Q&A with the Sentinel, Ely said there is an ongoing “renaissance in tolling” nationwide for three main reasons:

One is a growing acceptance of tolling. Second, is the fact that the gas tax is not sustainable and there needs to be other sources of funding to build projects. And I think the other trend causing this renaissance is the advancements in toll technology, particularly the payment of tolls and with electronic toll collection.

If these trends continue—and there’s not much reason to think they won’t—more of the country could resemble Florida, and not in terms of abundant beaches, oranges, and sunshine, but nearly ubiquitous tolls. Drivers may dread the never-ending spread of tolls, but some experts say that tolls are the most efficient, sustainable, and fairest way to pay for roads. In a new study from the Reason Foundation, Robert Poole recommends that the old-fashioned, crumbling national interstate highway system be replaced with a 21st century road system, with funding for this $983 billion project provided by “per-mile tolls collected using all-electronic tolling.”

Fuel taxes, of course, are supposed to pay for the building and repairing of roads. But modern cars are constantly ratcheting up higher fuel efficiency, and when drivers gas up less often, they pay less in gas taxes. This situation has led certain states to reconsider the gas tax proposition, with some states assessing new fees on vehicles that are too fuel-efficient (hybrids and electric cars), and perhaps even considering raising the sales tax to pay for roads, while dropping the gas tax entirely.

Poole’s study suggests a broad expansion of tolls—3.5¢/ mile for cars, 14¢/mile for trucks—as the new primary means of road funding. “Over several decades, the transformation of the Interstate system, state by state, would convert at least one-fourth of all travel from per-gallon fuel taxes to per-mile charging,” the report states. “Per-mile tolling reflects greater fairness, since those who drive mostly on Interstates will pay higher rates than those who drive mostly on local streets.”

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Not everyone thinks toll roads are fair—especially not the kind of cashless, all-electronic tolls being suggested by Poole. Frommers’ Jason Cochran dubbed such cashless toll highways in Florida, California, Texas, Massachusetts, and other states as the “meanest roads in America” because they penalize drivers who don’t have transponders used in electronic toll collecting. So, instead of paying a 50¢ toll via transponder, the driver only armed with cash may be later hit with a bill for $25.50 once a $25 “handling fee” is tacked on.

Out-of-town tourists using rental cars are among those who are unlikely to be driving cars equipped with transponders needed to avoid such fees. So are the poor. At a hearing in Springfield, Mass., discussing the state’s plan to switch to all-electronic tolls on the Mass Pike, audience members voiced concerns that the new system will hurt those who are “unbanked” and find it impossible to maintain EZ-Pass accounts. “These people will get another bill they can’t afford to pay,” one audience member complained, according to the Springfield Republican. “There are people without bank accounts who don’t need another bill.”