Transportation and tolls

Transportation and tolls.

I am a self employed truck driver. I have traveled well over a million miles on our nation's highways, covering all 48 states within the continental United States. This does not make me uniquely qualified to state an opinion, since I am one of only many truck drivers with similar experience (and not all of them would agree with me) however certainly I am better qualified then many of the politicians who wield the power on transportation decisions and who's experience is pretty much limited to commuting to work each day.

(See here) a Heritage Foundation article by Peter Samuel that discusses what is called "Smart Growth" by proponents as they push for approval of their ideas on how to meet our surface transportation needs in the future. Please notice a large portion of this idea is the use of tolls for funding construction needs.

Republicans are typically the politicians who are making the decisions and they seem to have fallen in love with the ideas of tolls. They refuse to raise the fuel tax, because they want to cut taxes, not raise them. But tolls? Somehow they have convinced themselves that tolls are "not really" a tax and putting tolls on all of our highways is the smart way to go. But is it really? Let's examine one of the new toll proposals in detail and see if this proposal holds up. Let us examine the proposal to make the entire length of Interstate 81 in Virginia a super tollway for trucks.

(See here) a New Republic article written by Clay Risen that discusses this proposal. I-81 is bustling with traffic. I would hardly call it extremely congested, and could come up with numerous examples of interstates that are far busier, however a large portion of the existing traffic is heavy trucks. This stretch of road has earned the nickname "NAFTA Highway" because it is one of the main freight corridors for trade goods coming out of Mexico headed to the Northeast US and Eastern Canada. Projections are for ever increasing truck traffic on this corridor, so even if it is not yet that badly congested, if nothing is done, it indeed could get ugly.

So what is the plan? The plan is to increase the number of lanes from four to eight with four of these lanes being dedicated truck toll lanes. The plan is to separate the truck and automobile traffic, which, since this corridor is fairly mountainous, is not such a bad idea. At first the proposal was for all traffic to pay tolls, however this met with opposition from the citizens of Virginia who didn't want to pay a new toll. Citizen opposition was silenced by nixing the tolls for cars and requiring that only trucks will have to pay for the improvements.

Traffic prognosticators forecast ever increasing traffic. But as the New Republic article states:

But the plan's fatal flaw is that, to recoup its investment, star assumes a
steady increase of truck traffic and a minimal amount of diversion onto state
highways and other roads. Basic economics, however, proves otherwise.

The article then goes on to discuss all the truck traffic coming out of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina that will be diverted to the US-29 corridor to avoid the toll. Left undiscussed is the fact that a lot of the traffic that is on I-81 is there in order to avoid the tolls that already exist on other, shorter routes. Once I-81 becomes a tollway, the motivation for truckers to take the longer I-81 route into the Northeast will be removed. If you have to pay a toll either way you go, you might as well stick with the shorter route.

Also left undiscussed is all the truck traffic currently coming out of Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and all points from the Southwest. Much of this traffic will be diverted to the only slightly longer Bluegrass Parkway, I-64, I-79, I-68 corridor finally meeting up with I-81 in Maryland to avoid the tolls in Virginia.

Won't happen? Let us examine what happened to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority when they recently increased tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. New Jersey figured that if they increased tolls by a certain percentage, multiplied by existing usage rates and factoring in projected increases in traffic they would reap a certain increase in revenues. Only problem was the full increase in projected revenues did not happen, and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority was faced with major revenue shortfalls. This was even after rather draconian steps by New Jersey (possibly in violation of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act) to force all truck traffic onto the tollway.

It is perhaps ironic that the New Jersey Turnpike Authority might actually benefit if I-81 becomes a tollway, since some of the increased truck traffic on I-81 is there to avoid the tolls on the I-95 corridor.

So what would I propose? Well, since I AM a citizen of Virginia, I would suggest that Virginia raise the fuel tax. Virginia's fuel tax is less then all neighboring states, and even with a sizable increase, would still be downright reasonable in comparison to many examples nationally. As far as this citizen is concerned, a toll is a tax, and if you are going to raise my taxes I would like to see it done in as fair a manner as possible. I certainly do not want to later hear the eggheads asking for forgiveness if the whole I-81 improvement project becomes a boondoggle because "no one could anticipate" the revenue shortfalls.

Yes, I did write my state Senator, Frank W Wagner, about this. He's even on the Transportation Committee. Problem is that man is so in love with tolls, he wants to even put a tollbooth on I-85 at the North Carolina state line. I did not receive a response from him, and it looks like full speed ahead on tolls in Virginia. All I can say is wait till election day!


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