Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mike Krusee pitches toll road snake oil in Utah

National advocate for doing away with gas tax for toll booths finds support among state lawmakers


By Brandon Loomis
The Salt Lake Tribune
Copyright 2008

Utah's pending shift to time-of-day tolls in freeway express lanes moves the state one step closer to a necessary overhaul in highway funding, a national transportation advocate told legislators Wednesday.

Tolls are fairer and stabler revenues for road building and must anchor infrastructure plans since gas taxes will fail, starting next year, to keep the federal highway trust fund solvent, said Texas state Rep. Mike Krusee, a member of the National Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission.

After the presidential election, that commission will recommend a national shift away from gas taxes and toward tolls to charge people for interstates they use - and more during rush hours - essentially turning freeways into fee-ways.

Both federal and state governments will have to make the change - some key Utah lawmakers are interested - as the trust fund is drained, Krusee said. The fund's shortfall will start at $5 billion next year and swell to $30 billion in 2010, likely meaning a one-third reduction in federal assistance for Utah roads, he warned.

"We don't even know in 20 to 30 years if [motorists] are going to be buying any fuel or what kind of fuel they'll be buying," Krusee told the Utah Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee. His answer: Charge for miles traveled.

The Utah Department of Transportation plans to use electronic on Interstate 15 within two years so commuters can spot-pay for express lanes. The amount - which has yet to be set - will depend on how busy the freeway is at the time of travel. Higher traffic will mean a higher toll.

That plan could stretch to all lanes if state and federal lawmakers do as Krusee suggests.

The Texas lawmaker called the current funding plan a subsidy by taxpayers to suburban developers who use the roads to open cheaper lands and further bog down commuter-hour traffic. Charging a toll instead means everyone pays their way and the government gets a return on its investment, which it can bond against for future projects.

Electronic scanners are the method of future tolls nationwide and already are used in places such as Chicago, Krusee said. It's necessary to install cameras as well, so that cars without transmitters can be charged the toll by mail if their license plate is spotted.

Texas built a $3 billion tollway around Austin four years ago, Krusee said, and within six months sold as many transmitters for it as there are residents in the county.
UDOT pays about 85 percent for its own road projects, potentially lessening the blow from federal shortfalls compared with states that get half or more from U.S. gas taxes. But Krusee sees a market approach as the surest way for future generations to snag needed funding.

He found enthusiastic supporters in the Utah Legislature.

"Hearing you is a breath of fresh air," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said. "I just want to welcome you to the socialist republic of Utah," a reference to what he considers subsidized rush hours.

Stephenson is president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association, which supports freeway congestion pricing. He said it is wrong for taxpayers to subsidize interstate capacity built to meet the demands of just four hours a day. Better, he added, to have those peak-hour drivers pay their way.

More than half the motorists on the nation's freeways during rush hours are not driving to or from work, Krusee said. Charging them might move them off the road until later, speeding up traffic.

Sen. President John Valentine, R-Orem, said he is "intrigued" by a market approach to roads.

E-tolls ahead
Electronic tolling is coming to Interstate 15's express lanes within two years. Details about the transmitters and possible fares have yet to be set, but motorists will pay more during rush hours.

© 2008 Salt Lake

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