Are tolls really the solution?

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A new study recently released by the Reason Foundation claims that highway tolls are a far more efficient way to collect the monies needed to fund transportation infrastructure needs in the U.S. versus taxes on fuel.

The report – entitled Dispelling the Myths: Toll and Fuel Tax Collection Costs in the 21st Century– in particular stresses that the cost of collecting fuel taxes is actually the same, not less, than via tolls. The Reason Foundation’s research concludes that fuel taxes cost about 5% of the total revenue collected, much higher than the 1% commonly believed, with the cost of collecting money from all electronic tolls is also 5% of revenue.

Robert Poole (at right), director of transportation for the Reason Foundation, noted in a recent blog post that “equivalency” between fuel tax and toll collection costs is a really big deal.

“Some of the concerns over shifting from increasingly inadequate per-gallon fuel taxes to a per-mile charging system have been the assumed much-higher cost of charging by the mile,” Poole said.

“However, this report suggests that, for the limited-access highway system (i.e., urban expressways and major highways such as the Interstates), it would be feasible today to begin the conversion from gasoline and diesel taxes to all electronic polling,” he pointed out.

“This would not require any equipment in the vehicle other than a standard transponder – such as the E-ZPass transponder in the Northeast and Midwest,” Poole emphasized. “That would be a major first step toward a possible broader shift to per-mile charging on other roadways.”

Now, I must admit, I’m old school: I don’t have an E-ZPass so I get caught up in long lines at toll booth collection zones and let me tell you that kind of congestion is not only irritating, it wastes a ton of fuel.

However, the Reason Foundation’s study points out that ongoing advances in toll collection technology – such as the E-ZPass I don’t have – not only significantly reduces the costs of toll collection, but the traffic delays associated with it.

“First introduced nearly three decades ago, electronic toll collection (ETC) is now nearly ubiquitous on U.S. toll roads and bridges,” the group said in its report. “Since the early 1990s we have also seen the development of open-road tolling (ORT), which allows transponder-equipped vehicles to bypass toll booths at highway speed, and more recently all electronic tolling (AET) has eliminated the need for toll booths altogether by eliminating cash toll collection at the roadside.”

[If you’ve got a half hour to spare, check out the video below. It details how the Reason Foundation believes electronic tolling and other such methods could help Chicago solve some of its traffic issues.]

In addition, the authors noted, AETs have eliminated the secondary costs of manual toll collection such as traffic hazards at toll plazas, traffic congestion – especially the emissions produced and fuel consumed during the waiting process – along with noise and consumptive land use.

So, are tolls really the answer? I for one still have my doubts. You have to buy a transponder and ensure there’s enough digital cash stuffed into its electronics to let you use the roadways without trouble. In my neck of the woods, for example, people who get on the wrong road without a transponder or one that’s on empty get fined.

Then again, I’m also becoming something of a relic who reads actual books, writes paper checks to pay his bills, and thinks one should talk with dinner guests instead of using one’s “smartphone” to restlessly scroll the Internet.

Maybe electronic tolls are a sign of the times and I should just get with it. 

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