States push for tolls to fund transportation; public opinion mixed

By Chris McCahill
As states struggle to fill budget gaps left by declining fuel tax revenues, many are turning increasingly to tolls. As reported recently by Stateline, a Pew news service, lower rates of driving and weak revenues from new toll-managed highways have pushed many states to consider new tolls on existing facilities, along with other strategies such as mileage-based fees. A recent report from the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago (written in response to the proposed Illiana Expressway spanning Indiana and Illinois) confirms that many new toll roads around the country have struggled or failed entirely. That leaves tolling existing facilities as an increasingly viable option for transportation funding and also an appealing traffic management strategy on already congested routes.
According to a 2011 Stateline report, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey were among those states already raising rates on existing tolls or planning to raise rates; others now include Denver, Illinois, Florida, and West Virginia. In another recent trend, states such as California, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington are introducing new tolls on formerly un-tolled existing facilities, including bridges and new toll-managed lanes. In recent years, Connecticut—one of the only Northeastern states without tolls—has considered reinstating its toll program using electronic systems, after removing its former toll booths in response to multiple collisions in 1983.
Despite stressed budgets and degraded infrastructure, tolls still are unpopular among the public in many cases. Lawmakers in North Carolina have challenged efforts to toll I-95 and, in Kentucky, the public is split on using tolls to fund bridge repairs. Residents in Virginia challenged new tolls meant to fund bridge repairs on the grounds that they are an unfair tax, but the Supreme Court upheld the tolls. In contrast, various studies in Wisconsin have found that tolls are both a viable financing option and that they have marginal public support. As tolls gain support, some states are finding them to be valuable sources of revenue system-wide improvements beyond highway maintenance and added capacity. For example, Pennsylvania, California, Minnesota, and Virginia plan to use toll revenues for transit improvements. More information on new state funding sources and how they’re being used can be found at Transportation for America’s State Tracker.
Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.