The bogus ‘Toll-the-Interstates’ solution

February 22, 2018

John Bendel

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Here come the toll roads, lots of them. And there may be no way around them.

We badly need to fix America’s roads. I’m happy to see a plan from the administration. But at least some of the proposed improvements in the plan will be funded by tolls. One element of the president’s infrastructure plan would allow states to raise cash by tolling currently free interstates (They’re not free, of course. We paid for them.)

We know that tolls in general are a bad idea. For trucks, they’re a pain in the ass, not to mention a tax that gets passed on in the eventual cost of whatever we’re hauling. But there are other costs as well. In fact, the states that introduce tolls on existing roads may be in for more trouble than they realize.

Back in 2007, two university researchers, Michael Belzer and Peter Swan, published a study on the total impact of toll increases on freight traffic, on alternate highways, and on the overall economy. Belzer is the guy who wrote “Sweatshop on Wheels” in 2000, a book that revealed the low pay and difficult conditions of the truckload industry.

The toll study is titled “Empirical Evidence of Toll Road Traffic Diversion and Implications for Highway Infrastructure Privatization.” The content is as challenging as the title.

The study was about the hypothetical sale of the Ohio Turnpike to private investors – more or less what happened to the Indiana Toll Road next door. Much of the study involved the impact of toll increases that would necessarily follow.

The Ohio Turnpike had raised tolls by roughly 60 percent between 1995 and 1999 to fund an expansion. The authority reduced them again in 2005. That enabled an interesting comparison of truck traffic on the turnpike with parallel roads at different levels of tolling.

The study points out truck diversion has costs, not only in additional maintenance costs for secondary roads but in an overall reduction of economic efficiency. Worse, the two-lane and four-lane alternate roads are inherently less safe, and accidents result from increased traffic on them. Those costs are measured in human terms as well as dollars.

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Here’s where it gets really interesting. Belzer and Swan discuss competition between privately operated toll roads and parallel public roads. Private toll road operators don’t like attractive alternate routes. Some tolling lease agreements, they say, have included noncompete clauses that can prevent the government from upgrading parallel roads. It’s possible, the authors say, that where commercial traffic is concerned, states could be forced to restrict trucks entirely from those alternate routes.

In fact, it has already happened in New Jersey.

Here we’re talking about the state-owned New Jersey Turnpike and not a private toll road, and the issue was about politics, not competition. But the result was truck bans on what had long been truck routes.

It began in 1991 when N.J. Turnpike tolls rose by 100 percent. Where previously a five-axle truck had paid $9.10 to drive the length of the road, they now paid $18.20. As a result, trucks avoided the turnpike wherever possible. In fact, the New Jersey Motor Truck Association went to war with the turnpike, urging truckers to use alternate routes, even mailing instructive maps to fleets east of the Mississippi. The result was lots more truck traffic on those roads. That led to a political backlash in towns near roads like U.S. 130 and a headache for New Jersey politicians. The war between the turnpike and New Jersey Motor Truck Association would last almost four years.

But when the turnpike director was fired in 1995, his replacement made a show of enticing truckers back to the turnpike. He invited truckers to an event where they could make suggestions for making the turnpike better. Free coffee and donuts helped the turnout, but no one left happy.

The effort didn’t work.

So in 1999, the governor ordered that big trucks not picking up or delivering in the state had to get off all but the National Highway System roads – essentially the interstates. For practical purposes that meant you had no choice but to use the turnpike for much of its length. And guess what? The following year, turnpike tolls went up again. Back-to-back increases in 2000 and 2003 raised tolls another 40 percent. What a coincidence.

Today it can cost almost $50 to ride the length of the turnpike in an 18-wheeler. And now there is no real choice but to pay.

While any plan is better than no plan, an infrastructure proposal that relies on tolls could make things more expensive, disproportionately more expensive for trucking.

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.