Recommendations from the Washington State Comprehensive Tolling Study
Tolling has been historically used as a means to raise revenue for specific and large transportation projects, such as bridges, and after the debt was met, the toll would be removed. Eliminating the toll for a project requires finding other funding sources to meet the costs of operating, maintaining and repairing the projects. While these costs could be met a generation ago without undue burden, the current context is different. States and localities face significant budget shortfalls, while the costs of rehabilitation of the aging transportation infrastructure continue to rise and congestion levels severely reduce efficiency and mobility. Further, building capacity is not as viable a solution to increased demand, and technology enables more efficient electronic tolling. Thus, policy approaches toward tolling now sees it as a tool to manage demand and as a means of raising revenue, even after the debt for a specific project is paid off.
In 2006 the State of Washington approved a tolling study that it had commissioned to review the state's practice of tolling and provide recommendations. These recommendations derive from a comprehensive review of tolling history, practice and costs and benefits and, in this sense, can be viewed as lessons learned. They include the following.
- Consider tolling as a tool for managing travel demand. Using higher tolls for periods of peak demand can provide an incentive for travelers to switch travel to nonpeak times, car-pool, or use transit. In this way, tolling is used to influence the amount and flow of traffic that uses a facility, and can improve the reliable movement of vehicles on a highway during peak period. This approach to pricing is similar to electric utilities that use price as a means of managing peak demand, and thereby reducing the pressure to add onto or build bigger facilities. Using price differentials to increase efficiency has been achieved in past projects within a short term time frame (within 10 years).
- Consider tolled express lanes as a way to build additional capacity. Adding tolled express lanes is a way to add highway capacity on existing systems. This approach, viewed as achievable on a medium term basis (within 20 years), requires careful examination of system costs and benefits and potential impacts on other facilities and populations. Tolled express lanes are a means to optimize new or existing capacity, and are considered when the cost of the project cannot be met with standard tax-based funding. Just as important to providing benefits, the project must not produce adverse impacts by diverting traffic to other routes, nor should the project result in undue economic or social hardship on any segment of the population.
- Beware that project costs of operation, maintenance and repair continue after the debt is paid off and tolls are removed. The comprehensive tolling study described the standard, historical approach to tolling projects, in which tolls are removed when the costs of construction are paid for. Yet, the costs of operating, maintaining, and repairing the project will endure through the lifetime of the facility. A further point is that repairs for large projects that are frequently tolled, such as bridges, are significant and not easily met through standard means (such as the gas tax). Thus, the study recommends that tolls remain in place after the initial construction, as a way to fund additional capacity, rehabilitation, maintenance and operations.
Although the policy recommendations put forth above were generated specifically for the State of Washington, they are likely applicable on a nation-wide basis. These recommendations were derived from a comprehensive review of tolling practices and effects and an understanding of the fiscal constraints of state and local budgets in the face of unsustainable levels of congestion, limited means of physically expanding capacity, and a deteriorating infrastructure. The study identifies ways in which electronic tolling can support the goals of productivity and efficiency.