Tolls over taxes?

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Tolling is about giving people choices, which adds to its appeal. Historically toll roads have been constructed where there also are non-toll alternatives. People decide whether to pay for a congestion-free ride or not.” –Jack Finn, national director of toll services, HNTB Corp.

Now, here are some survey results I completely disagree with – that most Americans prefer tolls to taxes in terms of generating the funds necessary to fix and expand highway infrastructure.

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I mean, personally, I can’t STAND toll booths. And don’t give me chapter and verse about the electronic tolling either, for anyone that’s sat in a five mile backup at a toll booth knows that the electronic toll booth line moves just as slow as the “cash and carry” options. Let’s face it: people are getting in the wrong line or discover at the last second that the electronic thing-a-ma-jig attached to their vehicle’s windshield is all out of funds.

Now, while no one likes taxes, at least you can collect those without clogging up the roads during peak travel times. Yet apparently a survey conducted by consulting firm HNTB Corp. has determined that Americans PREFER tolls to fuel taxes. Imagine!

According to HNTB's latest America THINKS survey, a strong majority of Americans (84%) feel tolls should be considered project-by-project or as a primary source of transportation revenue. Only a small minority (16%) say tolls should never be used, noted Jack Finn, HNTB’s national director of toll services.

Asked where they would be willing to spend more money to support long-term transportation improvements in their area, Americans ranked tolling ahead of other options, with nearly four in 10 (39%) choosing additional road and bridge tolls versus additional public transportation fees (29%), vehicle registration fees (23%), sales taxes (20%), gas taxes (18%), income taxes (11%) or property taxes (9%).

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In addition, nearly half (47%) of Americans believe the most important function of a toll facility is to generate transportation revenue, versus reducing congestion (25%) or providing a higher level of customer service (13%), HNTB found in its research.

“Decades of underinvestment have left the U.S. transportation system in a losing battle against time, population growth, weather and wear,” said Finn. “There is no such thing as a free road. Tolling is a proven source of alternative funding, already used in a variety of locations across the country. Its primary appeal - as a user fee - means those who use the road pay for the road.”

HNTB’s survey also found most Americans support tolls on roads and bridges to generate transportation revenue, especially those that save them drive time. And when it comes to construction, Americans prefer a focus on fixing existing infrastructure than building new facilities, according to the polling results.

Now, the America THINKS survey – conducted by Kelton Research via an e-mail invitation and online survey questionnaire – polled a random nationwide sample of 1,005 Americans between June 25 and July 1. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and over, with the margin of error of plus or minus 3.1%.

HNTB’s survey also found most Americans would support tolls that fund improvements for either the road on which it's paid (53%) or other existing roadways (45%), with far fewer (18%) wanting these toll revenues to be devoted to new construction.

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“Throughout the country, there’s an overwhelming sentiment that it’s important to concentrate on infrastructure that already exists rather than building from scratch,” Finn said.

Finally, it’s important to note than more than two in three (68%) Americans don't really think about tolls without considering convenience; they would be willing to pay a higher toll fare if it saved them time on the road, HNTB’s research found.

So if tolls resulted in MORE congestion, then, perhaps Americans might not favor them as much? Maybe even avoid them?

Guess what – that Achilles heel in the tolling plan pops up in HNTB’s survey results, too, as 61% of those drivers polled admit they have purposely avoided a road or bridge with tolls at least once. The reason for such avoidance varies, with 43% feeling that tolls are generally too costly, and another 24% viewing most toll plazas as high-traffic areas.

Suddenly, there’s a big contradiction here, isn’t there? We want tolls, but not if they gum up the works. Yet Finn thinks that problem can be solved through technology – allowing for “high speed” capture of toll monies without impeding traffic flow. Indeed, nearly three in five (57%) respondents in the survey believe the future of tolling would ideally be a combination of cash and electronic collection on local roads and bridges.

“Technology now allows us to use video cameras and transponders to conduct transactions at highway speeds,” Finn said. “We're generating revenue, reducing congestion and saving time. There's no need to slow down and throw change in a bucket; just keep driving.”

If that REALLY turns out to be the case, maybe tolls will work as a funding mechanism for our roadway infrastructure needs. We’ll see.

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