Yes, there is an upside to tolling our highways - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Yes, there is an upside to tolling our highways

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Congestion causes stress and costs time and money. Tolling is one way to lessen those negative impacts.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the first toll road was born around 1792 and became known as the Philadelphia Turnpike. Back then, it cost around $12,500 per mile to construct crushed stone surfaces traversed by horse and buggy. It wasn’t until 1880, with the proliferation of bicycles, that a “smooth road” movement was born.

Construction cost per mile is now closer to $1.4 million. In 2011, the Illinois Tollway did something it hadn’t done in nearly 30 years: It raised tolls by 35 cents per mile to finance its $12 billion capital plan, Move Illinois. Today, because of that plan, the Illinois Tollway is the “major player in the region” when it comes to road construction and smooth roads. Meanwhile, revenues for traditional state and federal transportation expenditures on non-tolled roads have been declining for more than 20 years.

The tollway is governed by an independent board and is able to act without the approval of Illinois’ general assembly or the federal government. Other highways across the state are not governed in the same way, leaving them in poor shape and in need of resources for maintenance. The federal government does not allow states to put tolls on their existing interstates without adding capacity. That might seem like a good thing, but tolling is not only a direct source of revenue for much-needed capital improvements, it also allows transportation agencies to better manage their existing assets—setting the toll price lower when demand is high and vice versa—and to attract private investment in public infrastructure.

Transportation modelers have shown that even a 5 percent decrease in traffic volume can produce free-flow traffic. By charging tolls that vary with time of day and congestion, a transportation agency can use market forces to encourage those who don’t need to be on the expressways during rush hour to travel outside the peak, most congested period.

Even a 5 percent decrease in traffic volume can produce free-flow traffic.

For example, if John, who works from home, schedules his Boston Terrier’s routine shots at 4 p.m., he’s jockeying for space with Carol the Commuter, who really just wants to get home a.s.a.p. However, if John chooses to schedule the shots at, say, 11 a.m., that’s one less car for Carol to compete with on her trip home. If John knows he’ll pay more in tolls at 4 than at 11, he’ll schedule it at 11 when there is a lot less traffic and more room on the roads.

Through an analysis conducted in collaboration with the Tollway, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) studied the effect of congestion pricing on several of our region’s roadways and found very positive results. The daily commuter on the Kennedy (I-90) could double her speed and halve her travel time for a little more than $2.00. Since the completion of the study, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has heralded congestion pricing as a top recommendation in the region’s GO TO 2040 long-range plan.

So tolling can be viewed as payment for services rendered: You’re paying to avoid congestion. But tolling can also be seen as a mechanism for attracting private investment—in other words, someone else can pay for improvements that cash-strapped states can’t afford. MPC was a leader in passing the Public-Private Partnership for Transportation Act in Illinois. As our region explores the use of these public-private partnerships—as many others have already done—having the ability to toll existing capacity makes even partnerships dedicated to maintenance possible.

The Chicago region’s needs don’t lie only with creating new capacity; in fact, today over 85 percent of the region’s capital dollars go to maintenance. By allowing tolls on I-55, for example, Illinois could contract with a private entity to finance, maintain and operate the highway for some period of time via a long-term lease, thereby removing the burden of maintenance from the Ill. Dept. of Transportation.

President Obama’s Grow America Act 2.0, which he unveiled earlier this year, would expand local control by allowing state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations to determine if they want to toll existing capacity. Furthermore, it would allow this financing to be shared with transit, thereby creating an integrated transportation approach. In addition, Ill. Senator Mark Kirk has stated he will re-introduce his Lincoln Legacy Act, which similarly lifts the prohibition on tolling existing capacity on interstate highways. As the federal debate on a new transportation bill draws near, MPC is supporting both of these approaches.

Here’s one additional thought for consideration. In the Chicago region there are multiple agencies responsible for transportation planning and financing: the Tollway and IDOT manage roads, the Regional Transportation Authority along with Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace deal with transit and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning coordinates everyone’s planning efforts. An integrated approach across modes would combine these agencies into a single streamlined entity that manages roads and transit and has access to the whole funding pie—including tolls, sales taxes and other sources—as opposed to the small slices that are currently divvyed up by agency. It’s not a new idea but it is one whose time has come.

If you’re tired of being stuck in rush hour traffic, if you’ve ever wished for newer, better transit systems, if you’ve ever wondered if there’s a simple solution, then tolling—done well, and with everyone’s best interests at heart—might just be an answer. There is a chance now to make that a reality.

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