What will happen to toll roads if road user charging takes over?


Will the toll roads of the future be all highways? If so, what are the implications for the toll industry, the departments of transportation (DOTs) and drivers? I ask this question because of all the changes swirling about tolling at traditional authorities, as well as emerging road funding schemes and how they will impact several existing industries.

Toll roads started out simply as roads where enterprising entrepreneurs set up pikes, or movable barriers to stop vehicles to collect the toll. How quaint. The 20th century saw the struggle between a national system of toll highways as advocated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the ultimate adoption of a national interstate highway system advocated by Eisenhower and ultimately adopted. For the past half century the primary system to pay for roadway maintenance has been the gas tax, with direct user charges as the model for a smaller segment of the network: toll roads and bridges.

However, today’s trends in both tolling and funding hint at a different future. Tolling is shifting from a tolling infrastructure of toll booths to overhead gantries, from human interaction to tags and license plate readers. At the same time, states are exploring alternatives to the gas tax that will charge by the mile.

I have written a fair amount about mileage-based user fees (or ‘road user charging’) and I’m beginning to believe that it is a future that will actually arrive. The trends of hybrids/plug-in electrics and national politics suggests no way to increase Federal funding to fill in the huge hole in budgets, so the states are truly on their own. Oregon and California have pilots, and while Oregon struggled to find volunteers, California, a much larger state, is oversubscribed. Both states have a history of progressive policies and both could lead the nation. If California established a program to charge 32 million vehicles for their road usage, imagine the impact that could have on other states.

The two distinguishing characteristics of a toll road are toll collection and a superior roadway. A premium price needs to come with a premium service. You knew that you were on a toll road because you had an account with the authority. You had a smooth ride and quality roadside services. How would things evolve if you were a customer of both the state DOT and the toll authority?

You would have personal accounts for mileage with the state and toll road usage with the authority. The two government entities would need to cooperate so as not to charge mileage for toll road usage, so that system would need to evolve beyond the simplistic odometer readings twice a year. With a guaranteed source of income, the state could do a better job of roadway maintenance. So what’s the difference between tolling and road user fees? Not so much anymore – and the bigger political stick is with the DOT. Is the toll road of the future a highway? Could be…

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