Southern states reconsider resistance to toll road trend

Published 6:32 pm Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Growing up in upstate New York, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said he was under the impression that all major highways were toll roads.

He found a different reality once he moved to the South in the 1970s.

While charging for highway access has been a common way to fund road building and maintenance in much of the country, most of the South has resisted the trend.

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That could change as federal funding for road projects dries up and states try to ward off gas-tax hikes amid spiking fuel costs.

Bredesen, a Democrat, surprised many observers earlier this year when he announced his support for the creation of a toll road authority in Tennessee. Lawmakers have acknowledged general unease about the proposal by limiting the proposal to just two pilot projects: one road and one bridge.

Florida and Texas have made extensive use of toll roads and bridges, but there are only a handful of toll roads in the remainder of the region.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, last month signed into law a bill that would authorize the construction of toll roads. The Mississippi law prohibits toll roads from being built unless there is an existing free alternative.

Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said despite the opposition often raised to charging for access to roads, total national toll road revenues jumped 22 percent, or $1.5 billion, between 1998 and 2004.

“A lot of states have shortfalls in transportation spending,” he said. “Clearly they’re searching for alternatives to the gas tax, and toll roads are one of those alternatives.”

States like Tennessee and Arkansas have long sought to avoid going into debt to pay for road construction, but are increasingly finding it difficult to gather the money for road projects, Sundeen said.

States that issue road bonds have the advantage of getting the money to pay for projects up front — “but that has its consequences,” Sundeen said.

“New Jersey at this point is using its entire highway trust fund for debt service in the state,” he said. “Bonding is an option states have, but it certainly carries a price as well.”

Twenty-eight states sold bonds to finance road building projects in 1998. That number rose to 34 by 2004, while the amount of state debt doubled, he said.

Much of the highway infrastructure backbone in the South dates back to the nationwide interstate construction program begun in the 1950s. Demographic pressures are now causing states to reconsider toll roads, as Georgia did when it opened a toll road around Atlanta in the early 1990s, said Michael Meyer, a Georgia Tech professor and transportation consultant.

Meyer said there was “a lot of hand-wringing” over the Atlanta toll road, and he was called by reporters shortly after it had little immediate usage when it opened. “I said: wait,” Meyer remembered.

“Wait six months and there will be more cars than you know what to do with,” he said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Up to 300,000 cars pass some points of the toll road each day, which at 50 cents each can add up to a lot of money, he said.

Meyer predicts that states that try to rely only on their gas tax revenues to pay for road projects will become more desperate as more people turn to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“I guarantee that 10 or 15 years from now they are going to be in a lot worse state than they are now, unless they come up with an alternative source of funding,” he said.

Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, said the pay-as-you-go model is becoming outdated amid rising construction costs and stagnant state road funds.

“You’re starting to see indications that there isn’t a big new federal program that’s going to come down and raise the lake for everybody,” said Gray.

“Even if there was a big federal program — like a gas tax or something — the states would still have to put up matching funds to get the federal dollars,” he said.

The realities of funding shortfalls for new road projects has caused the AAA auto club to revise its historical opposition to toll roads, said spokesman Randy Bly.

“We’re getting backlogged on the building of highways, and we certainly understand in these cases of new construction that we do need to rely on toll roads,” he said.

“Let’s face it, we have more and more traffic every year on our highways,” he said.

On the Net:

AAA Auto Club South:

International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association: