May 24, 2012

More tolls ahead as states scramble for road money

With the interstate highways crumbling and federal funding uncertain, tolling appears to be the best option available, despite the problems that go along with it.

By JOAN LOWY The Associated Press

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Cars pass through a toll gate of the New Jersey Turnpike as the first 53-mile section between Deepwater and Bordertown, N.J., opens on Nov. 5, 1951. Since then, tolls have been allowed on interstates in 15 states, and other states are fighting limits on tolling.

The Associated Press

But states also have a history of slapping tolls on roads traveled by a large share of out-of-state motorists. When Pennsylvania applied to put tolls on Interstate 80, a route favored by truckers, the federal government rejected the plan partly because some of the money raised would have gone to support public transit in Philadelphia, even though the highway doesn't touch the city's metro area.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced a bill to give the secretary of transportation oversight of tolling practices. The financing commission made a similar recommendation.

What to do about tolling isn't addressed in the highway bill now before Congress because of a standoff earlier this year between senators who favor and oppose easing tolling on interstate highways. The issue is expected to be revived next year after the retirement of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has led the opposition to greater tolling.

One concern is that the interstate system is aging, which means money must be found to repair and replace the roads.

"The roads are out there and we've paid off the mortgage, but that doesn't mean the system is paid for. Now the roads are crumbling and we have to upgrade them," said Patrick Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, which represents toll facilities.

Some relaxation of the ban on interstate tolling is in the works. The Transportation Department has selected the three states -- Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri -- for pilot toll projects.

Under another program, a $2 billion project now under way would add toll lanes on Interstate 495 in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. The state can't afford to build the lanes on its own, but money raised by a private investment partnership and a $586 million federal loan made the project possible.

Motorists who buy an E-ZPass that can be read electronically will be able use the lanes. Toll prices will fluctuate depending on traffic density. If toll lanes are crowded, prices will keep rising until enough motorists decide to remain in the slower lanes. The aim is to give motorists a way to travel quickly, but only if they are willing to pay for it -- an idea that has stirred controversy. Cars with three or more passengers will be able to use the lanes without paying.

The administrative costs of tolling are far greater than the gas tax, even when using electronic tolling, said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst with the private, consumer-oriented U.S. PIRG.

Some tolling agencies could also use "a dose of sunshine," Baxandall said. Because many are quasi-governmental, public disclosure, open meeting and other transparency rules don't always apply, he said. As a result, they frequently operate out of public sight, creating opportunities for corruption or manipulation by industry, he said.

A report by the New Jersey comptroller in March said cronyism and mismanagement at the Delaware River Port Authority had wasted millions of dollars. The authority operates four bridges, a ferry and a rail line across the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently raised cash fares on six interstate bridges and tunnels to $12 for cars. By 2015, it will cost a five-axle truck paying cash $105 to cross between New York and New Jersey, three times as much as for any other bridge or tunnel in the U.S., according to the American Trucking Association. Bill Baroni, the authority's deputy executive director, told a Senate hearing the hikes are necessary to make up for years of neglect and mismanagement.


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