Officials with the Maine Turnpike Authority will need a thicker skin than Connecticut politicians if they mean to use tolls to address the transportation infrastructure bills coming due there. If they succeed, they will be doing what Connecticut seemingly cannot, which is to ask people who use highways to pay for them.
As City Observatory writer Joe Cortwright explains, toll roads can be a magic bullet to accomplish several goals: reducing congestion, limiting VMT, and, maybe most importantly of all, getting people in single occupancy vehicles to think about the value they receive from that roadway.
Cortwright wrote: “Nobody likes paying for anything they are used to getting for free, and freeway tolls are no exception. But why are we willing to pay for electricity, gasoline, or air travel, but not for roads?”
In Louisville, Kentucky, a new $1 billion toll road on I-65 performed a miracle, in Cortwright’s view, by reducing congestion, generating funding for maintenance and reducing VMT.
“(W)idening highways (to as many as 23 lanes, as is the case with Houston’s Katy Freeway) simply generates more traffic and even longer delays and travel times,” he wrote. “(W)ith no sense of irony, highway boosters even tout the Katy Freeway as a ‘success story,’ despite the fact it made traffic congestion worse. In contrast, Louisville’s I-65 is an extraordinarily rare case where traffic congestion went away after a state highway department did something.”
Cortwright shares a lesson Maine Turnpike Authority planners would do well to heed. Two states spent a billion dollars doubling the size of I-65, only to have half as many people use the bridge, he explains.
“That money was wasted,” Cortwright adds, wryly. “Nothing more clearly illustrates the utter folly of highway expansions. As we’ve pointed out, highway engineers size roadways based on the assumption that the users will pay nothing for each trip. Just as with Ben and Jerry’s ‘Free Ice Cream Day,’ when you charge a zero price for your product, people will line up around the block. But ask people to pay, and you’ll get fewer takers.”
The Lamont administration in Connecticut may not try tolls again soon, but its leaders are not giving up on making transportation at least a little more sustainable. A new administration directive is for state transportation officials to work to reduce VMT on interstates as Tony Cherolis from Transport Hartford chronicled this week in his opinion column in CT News Junkie.
Lamont’s specific VMT reduction target has not been identified, and will need to be supported by state legislators, but as Connecticut’s share of the November $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill comes out of the fog and into view by state transportation planners, it’s a good time to consider the options, Cherolis advises.
Planners at the Maine Turnpike Authority are interacting with residents and local officials about concerns that the new roadway being built through farmland—and displacing some homes—will spur a lot of new low-density housing and contribute to more VMT traveled. But at $1.50 per trip, people will at least be thinking about the cost of their driving.
(Cover image source: Unsplash.)