How to keep population growth from taking toll on roadways

State and local departments of transportation throughout the United States are constantly looking for ways to develop their road networks and other transport links to meet their economic, political and social needs. In some jurisdictions this will mean building brand new roads.  In others it will mean focusing on refurbishing, widening and extending existing roads.

According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, travel delays due to traffic congestion caused drivers to waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel and kept travelers stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours- 42 hours per rush-hour commuter. The total nationwide price tag was $160 billion- $960 per commuter. Solutions to this increase of hours and dollars must involve a mix of strategies, combining new construction, better operations and more transportation options. One of those transportation options is toll roads.

Turnpikes were the earliest forms of toll roads. In 1792, the first turnpike was chartered and became known as the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania. It was the first road in America covered with a layer of crushed stone.

As more Americans became dependent on vehicles for transportation it was clear that a nationwide interconnecting system of highways was necessary. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided financial assistance to the states to build roads and bridges. The building of highways, bridges and tunnels became constant, especially in the larger cities such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Tolls were used on many roads, bridges and tunnels to help pay for this building boom, but the days of tossing change in a toll basket or paying a booth operator so they would lift a barrier slowly became obsolete.

By the 1980s roads and highways were starting to show their wear and tear from increased road travel. The demand to fix and build these paved-connections for the public was slowing and the need for toll roads began to re-emerge. The way toll road drivers pay also got an upgrade. Highway authorities in various state governments had begun to discuss the possibility of replacing metallic toll tokens with electronic transponders.  In 1989, the Dallas North Tollway in Texas became the first highway in the U.S. in which drivers had the option to use electronic transponders instead of cash to pay the tolls.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently released a report called Beyond Traffic 2045,” which highlights transportation challenges the Unites States will face over the next three decades. The report states that over the past 30 years the American population has increased 35 percent- from 230 million to 320 million. By 2045, the population is expected to increase by 70 million.  That will surely cause more congestion on the roads

The report listed several policies that could potentially reduce traffic and preserve quality, affordable and accessible transportation for everyone. One of those options is to lift the federal restriction on the tolling of interstate highways. The federal gasoline tax, which is currently at 18.4 cents, has not changed since 1997. This amount no longer raises enough money to pay for federal infrastructure spending.

Public-private partnerships (P3/PPP) with toll roads may be a better route to get roads constructed and maintained at a faster rate. A successful toll road project can be built with virtually any mix of public and private financial sponsorship. Several prototypical models have developed, incorporating increasing amounts of private involvement along with non-governmental funds. As the private sector contributes more equity financing and assumes more risks, the partnership develops more characteristics of full privatization.

Many cities and states have struggled to raise revenue for transportation projects. Historically, the country’s infrastructure is financed through state and local governments using a mix of their own revenues, federal highway aid and issued bonds.

But public-private partnerships allow private firms to bid on transportation projects, build and maintain the project for a set amount of time, and recover costs through tolls or set state payments. President-elect Donald Trump has said he will invest $1 trillion in fixing and building roads, bridges, water pipes and other infrastructure. This investment means using massive tax breaks to convince private investors to spend the money.

One of several states that has already invested in the P3 concept is Florida. The I-4 Mobility Partners (I-4MP), a public-private partnership rebuilding Interstate 4 through Central Florida, earned the Envision Platinum award for its ongoing programs to minimize environmental impacts. This  includes recycling 99 percent of the concrete and steel removed from roads and bridges, relocating protected wildlife, using efficient machinery, controlling stormwater runoff and planting non-invasive vegetation.  The project also facilitates the use of alternative transportation by integrating rail projects and improving pedestrian crossings and connections with bike trails.

Several industry leaders formed the I-4MP team to design, build, finance and operate the project through a 40-year P3 concession agreement with a total design and construction cost of $2.32 billion dollars.

Also in the driver’s seat with a P3 opportunity is Virginia who is building high-occupancy tolling (HOT) lanes outside the I-66 Capital Beltway. Construction is set to begin in the fall and the four HOT lanes could be put into operation in the summer of 2022.

The business partner is responsible for all costs to design, build, operate and maintain the HOT lanes, without any upfront public contribution.  The private partners will give the state a half-billion dollars at the financial close this summer as a concession fee and will contribute $800 million over 50 years to build and operate those transit projects. They will also give $350 million over the same period to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for congestion-easing projects.

Kentucky and Indiana collaborated in a P3 with an engineering group to build the Lewis and Clark Bridge. The bridge opened in December and provides improved highway accessibility and connectivity in the Louisville metropolitan area.

The cable-stayed bridge features a pedestrian and bicycle path, over 8 miles of new highway and twin tunnels under the historic site.The Lewis and Clark Bridge Project is part of a $2.3 billion Louisville Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project.
This project uses electronic tolling on the Lewis and Clark Bridge, the Abraham Lincoln Bridge and the improved I-65 Kennedy Bridge. A River Link E-Z Pass local transponder will ensure the lowest toll rates, according to the project’s engineering consultant.

Studies have shown that the implementation of electronic toll collection systems decreased congestion at toll plazas. Another benefit to the transponder systems is a reduction in accidents because drivers aren’t repeatedly stopping and moving to pay a toll. But, getting toll systems throughout the U.S. to become interoperable is still ongoing. This achievement would allow drivers to establish a single toll account that would allow for payments on U.S. toll facilities.

The MAP-21, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, enacted in July 2012, established new Federal legislative language regarding Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) interoperability.  Section 1512(b) Electronic Toll Collection Interoperability Requirements states that, “Not later than 4 years after the date of enactment of this Act, all toll facilities on the Federal-aid highways shall implement technologies or business practices that provide for the interoperability of electronic toll collection programs.”

Today, there are several large regions of interoperability (e.g. E-ZPass and SunPass) in which groups of toll agencies have adopted common standards so that all of the agencies within that region have ETC systems that talk to each other and recognize customers. Efforts are still underway to get interoperability throughout the nation.


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