Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"It's a new dawn for toll roads."

Steep Increases Set for Toll Roads

Moves Affect More Than a Third of Highways, Bridges and Tunnels That Currently Charge Fees


By Daniel Machalaba
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright 2005

There is a new bump in the road for commuters already stressed out by sky-high gasoline prices and gridlocked drives to work. Tolls on more than a third of the 5,000 miles of highways, bridges and tunnels that make drivers pay to use them have either been raised during the past year or are set to increase by the end of next month.

The toll increases are steep and affect millions of commuters on some of the busiest traffic arteries in the U.S. It now costs $3 -- up from $2 last summer -- to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and six other state-owned bridges in the Bay Area.

Pennsylvania socked drivers with an average price rise of 43% on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the fastest route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The New York State Thruway Authority plans an average increase of 25% for cars and 35% for trucks starting in mid-May on the 641-mile highway system, the country's longest toll road. Tolls there will rise as high as $18.50, from the current $14.70.

Road and bridge officials say the increases are desperately needed to repair or rebuild thoroughfares crumbling after decades of surging traffic. Pennsylvania's toll increase last August was its first since 1991. Tolls on the New York State Thruway haven't changed since 1988.

At the same time, the number of vehicles on U.S. roads, including trucks and buses, has far outstripped the increase in the number of miles of new roads added. And fuel taxes traditionally used to pay for highways aren't bringing in enough money to fix existing roads. Proceeds from toll roads also help subsidize subways, buses, commuter trains and even the Erie Canal in upstate New York.

Some of the rate increases on major toll roads around the country
Toll Roads, Bridges and Tunnels Length Toll Hike
New York State Thruway 641 miles 25%*
Dulles Toll Road (northern Virginia) 14 miles 100
MTA Bridges and Tunnels (New York) 13 miles 13
Maine Turnpike 106 miles 22
Illinois Tollway (Chicago) 274 miles 56
Pennsylvania Turnpike 531 miles 43
Kansas Turnpike 236 miles 5
Metropolitan Transportation Commission (San Francisco Bay Area) 32 miles 50
*For cars; truck tolls will rise 35%

"It's a new dawn for toll roads," says Jack Hartman, executive director of the Illinois Tollway. Proceeds from a 56% toll increase in January are being plowed into a 10-year project that will replace stretches of the 274-mile highway network with more-durable pavement, new lanes and an extension into fast-growing areas southwest of Chicago.

The higher tolls add up to more misery for commuters already battered by rising gas prices. Average prices for regular unleaded gasoline are now at about $2.22 a gallon, up 44 cents from a year ago, according to the Department of Energy.

As a result of the toll increases, Garen Tchopourian expects to spend an extra $200 over the next year to cross the Throgs Neck Bridge during his 65-mile round-trip commute to his job as technical director of a hedge-fund company in White Plains, N.Y. The bridge is one of nine bridges and tunnels in the New York City area where tolls rose 13% last month.

"When you put the gas price together with the increase in tolls, it makes you think twice if you want to get that extra cup of coffee during the day," says Mr. Tchopourian, who is 36 years old and has a newborn baby.

The rising toll prices are leading drivers like Betsy Mercogliano, a childbirth educator in Albany, N.Y., to take other forms of transportation. Instead of paying about $20 in tolls during the 375-mile drive to visit her parents in Washington, D.C., she and her husband try to fly. One-way airfares on Southwest Airlines from Albany to Baltimore/Washington International Airport are as low as $39.

Tolls on the New York State Thruway were supposed to disappear nearly a decade ago, when the bonds that financed construction of the highway, which opened in 1954, were paid off. But those plans were abandoned when state officials decided that they wanted the Thruway, which carries 230 million vehicles a year, to fund another highway that is toll-free. Continuing to levy the tolls shifts the burden of road-maintenance costs to Thruway users rather than to all taxpayers.

Similar cross-subsidy arrangements are common in other states, too. "It's not fair to make commuters who have to use their cars pay higher tolls for something they won't use," says Ken Reid of Leesburg, Va., a leader of a group urging drivers to boycott the Dulles Toll Road in northern Virginia. The 14-mile road's maximum toll doubles to $3 next month, with the increase helping to fund a new rail line.

While toll roads represent less than 1% of the 3.9 million miles of roadways in the U.S., toll roads, bridges and tunnels collect about $6 billion a year, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. Almost a dozen states are either building new toll roads, putting tollbooths on existing highways -- or seriously considering one of those two steps. Legislation that would accelerate the use of tolls on interstate roads is making its way through Congress.

For people who want to avoid the toll roads altogether, the costs aren't insignificant. Typically that can mean a detour onto less-direct routes that can strand drivers in snail-paced traffic through densely packed downtowns or sprawling suburbs. The number of cars using the Pennsylvania Turnpike is down by less than 1% since last summer's toll increase.

Road officials say they are sympathetic to consumers faced with the double whammy of rising tolls and gas prices. But they insist there is no other way to fix problems like the stretch of rough road that forced Mike Glesk, a strategic-planning consultant from Buffalo, N.Y., to hit the brakes during a drive on the Thruway with his family last fall. "I'd expect that on a two-lane back country road but not on a superhighway," he says.

Michael Fleischer, executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority, says "simple fixes and Band-Aid solutions are no longer the right, cost-effective solutions." The impending toll increases will pay to rebuild entire sections of the highway, he says.

Some toll-road operators are trying to soften the impact of higher tolls with smaller increases for drivers who pay electronically, using a transponder mounted on a car windshield that automatically deducts tolls from a customer's prepaid account. The Illinois Tollway plans to install overhead devices so that electronic-pay drivers wouldn't have to use tollbooths.

With no end in sight to the higher tolls spreading across the country, Michael Lapolla, executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, is trying at least to get frazzled commuters to their destinations a bit quicker. Several toll barriers along the 173-mile Garden State Parkway, where drivers now pay 35 cents apiece, are being removed. (To compensate for that, the cost of the remaining tolls will be doubled.)

Drivers are expected to save as much as five minutes from each stop that is eliminated. "It's just common sense," Mr. Lapolla says.

Write to Daniel Machalaba at daniel.machalaba@wsj.com

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