Fixing transportation … with tolls?

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It's time to realize we aren't going to find a free fix.” –Paul Yarossi, president of HNTB Holdings Ltd

A new survey by architecture and engineering firm HNTB Corp. confirmed a none-too-surprising belief among American citizens when it comes to figuring out how to maintain and repair our bridge and roadway networks: while most agree U.S. roads and bridges need help, consensus remains elusive on how to pay for it. Yet what came as a shock to me is that apparently – according to HNTB’s findings, now – we Americans think TOLLS are the way to go to fix our roads.

What???

Needless to say, I started reading this survey with great interest. According to the America THINKS survey commissioned by HNTB, more than two-thirds (67%) of respondents would be willing to spend more money on tolls, taxes or public transit fares if these funds went toward long-term transportation improvements in their area, such as expanding highway capacity or building high-speed rail.

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Also, the majority of Americans who say the gas tax is no longer sufficient to properly maintain the country's roads and bridges is on the rise, up 6% from last survey conducted back in January to 57%. Yet when considered in the context of trying to improve the U.S. economy (which HNTB defined as two consecutive quarters of economic growth), 64% of those polled still wouldn't support a 10-cent increase in the gas tax – a highway funding mechanism already endorsed by a multitude of studies and interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Here’s where things get strange for me, though: Among those willing to spend more on long-term transportation improvements in their area, HNTB’s research found support for higher gas taxes (36%) fell far below more tolls (52%) and public transportation fares (45%). Only higher property, income or sales taxes ranked lower (20%) among traditional infrastructure revenue streams.

Excuse me for a moment – Americans want MORE roadway tolls??? Are you KIDDING me here??? To me, this funding mechanism above all others is the most frustrating one of the lot, leading to more highway congestion and trip delays. This surprise finding is why I read these surveys – you just never really know what the majority is thinking … or why for that matter!

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But HNTB’s research indicates exactly that, so tolling – one of oldest funding mechanisms out there, based on the concept that those who use a road or bridge pay for it – appears to have broad support as a way to support surface transportation moving forward.

HNTB’s survey found 82% of Americans believe that tolling should be considered in special, project-by-project situations or as a primary source of transportation revenue. Fewer than one in five (18%) feel it should never be used. Also, nearly seven in ten (68%) would support adding high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to existing highways to give drivers the option of using these less congested lanes for a fee that can be adjusted based on the amount of traffic at any given time.

In fact, when asked how to pay for America's roads and bridges in the future, HNTB said publicly (35%) and privately (20%) run toll facilities, HOT lanes (33%) and other forms of congestion pricing (18%) received more support than an increase in the gas tax (16%) or other new user fees, such as a Vehicle Miles Traveled or “VMT” tax (14%).

A word of caution about the VMT here: HNTB pointed out that this is a relatively new concept being proposed as a potential long-term replacement for the gas tax … and many technical questions remain about how and when it might be implemented.

Most likely such a system would use odometer readings or satellite-based technology to measure how much each vehicle is driven and charge the owner accordingly. However, if VMT were to use a device to record where and when someone drove for the purposes of charging a fee, according to HNTB’s polling. 80% of Americans would be concerned about their privacy.

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Let’s note for the record something else: HNTB's America THINKS survey, conducted by Kelton Research, used an e-mail invitation and online survey to poll a random nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans between July 31 and Aug. 7, with a margin of error at plus or minus 3.1%. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and over. So all of the above extrapolation of American beliefs when it comes to transportation funding is gleaned from a sampling of 1,000 people; not a lot to hang your hat on.

Still, this survey reveals some interesting thought lines when it comes to how the general public thinks we ought to pay for transportation infrastructure. And one other important thing, too: Americans realize improvements won’t come for free … and that delays could make the problem bigger and ultimately tougher to handle.

“What we cannot do is wait,” noted Paul Yarossi, president of HNTB Holdings Ltd. “America needs a long-term vision of its transportation future [as] delays only increase costs and the deterioration of our infrastructure. It's time to realize we aren't going to find a free fix … and Americans understand this concept. So it will be imperative that our multiple modes of transportation are supported by multiple forms of funding.”

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