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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Toll Roads: A New Direction for U.S. Highways?

  • Author(s): Deakin, Elizabeth
  • et al.

Toll financing is emerging as a major means of paying for new highways in the United States. Some 1200 miles (1900 km) of new toll facilities are under study, design, or construction, with some thirty-five projects in seventeen states. While toll roads are not new to the US - a number were constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and those built in the 1940s and 1950s serve today as the major interregional highways in many states - the current crop of projects will add as much toll mileage as the total opened in the previous thirty years (Sandlin, 1989). Furthermore, the new interest in toll roads has led Congress to life a seventy-year prohibition against the use of federal funds for toll road construction; federally-assisted 'demonstration projects' in several states are now being planned.

Some observers believe the new toll roads are the wave of the future, offering a way out of financing binds facing most highway programmes. In addition, proponents note, toll roads offer a pathway for the introduction of new technologies, including tolling based on automatic vehicle identification and utilizing computerized billing systems. Because such systems would make it possible to implement both congestion pricing and weight-distance pricing, the toll roads are seen as a route to lasting relief from congestion problems and highway maintenance difficulties.

The new toll roads do incorporate a number of innovations. Whereas the US toll roads of earlier decades were almost all state government initiatives, many of the new projects involve private sector organizations as key players in finance, implementation, and operation. A variety of arrangements sharing responsibilities for the facilities among land developers, state and local government, engineering firms, and financial institutions are being devised. New technologies being implemented on some of the new toll roads will provide for more efficient toll collection (non-stop toll assessment collected via a monthly bill), and possibly will open the way for more sophisticated road pricing.

The toll roads are not without their detractors, however. Some question whether toll facilities make sense in other than very limited circumstances. Others question whether they are equitable, or are conveniences for the well-to-do that leave the transportation troubles of the less favoured unaddressed. When the toll roads are implemented through public-private partnerships, concerns about whether the public is getting a fair exchange or subsidizing special interests sometimes arise. When toll roads are built through special fast-track procedures that omit environmental reviews and public comment, their broader social acceptability comes under criticism.

The potential of toll roads as a transportation strategy thus is very much a matter deserving further consideration. This paper reviews the new toll road projects and assesses the pros and cons concerning their proliferation. The paper begins with a brief review of US toll road policy, then examines the renewed interest in toll road development. Concerns raised about tolls are examined next, followed by a discussion of possible future directions for toll road policy.

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