Bottom Line
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Road to revenue paved with greed

Dick Larsen
senior editor

Trends sometimes arrive like a lava flow — seemingly harmless, but toxic the closer they get.

This appears the case as federal authorities and states talk more about funding future transportation projects through the use of toll roads.

In some cases, toll roads represent nothing more than double taxation — there’s no new construction, no new jobs — nothing useful for citizens or highway users.

OOIDA opposes tolls on existing roads. It’s become just another way politicians use highways we’ve already paid for to get more revenue.

And the association opposes tolls on new roads too.

In many states, revenue gained from these tolls often curves along a Statehouse detour for uses other than highway maintenance, construction and safety.

Toll roads are a bad idea for other reasons too — they increase the cost of doing business, raise the price of consumer goods and threaten the livelihood of independent owner-operators. All this at a time when wages are down, unpaid work time is increasing and diesel prices are up.

All these reasons argue against toll roads.

However, a recent GAO report, “Freight Transportation: Strategies Needed to Address Planning and Financing Limitations,” says “user pay systems” reduce congestion. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee requested the report.

And while speaking to the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, recently, Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters said a new system that collects from users needs to be explored, along the lines of “a public utility model.”

That model would look to time of use and demand.

“We can’t depend on fossil fuel taxes into the future,” she said, we should begin to find ways to shift away from the current approach to improve planning.

Meanwhile, at the state level, toll road initiatives are popping up across the country, as reported in this issue of Land Line.

For example, the Texas Department of Transportation, under a proposed rule issued Jan. 29, will be able to create toll lanes on any portion of the state highway system if they reduce congestion.

And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently announced his administration would ask private companies to build more lanes on congested highways, then recoup the costs through tolls on all drivers.

So it appears the trucking industry, and small-business professional truckers in particular, are doing business at the base of Mount Vesuvius — and the danger is oozing closer.

However, if this toll road eruption is indeed inevitable, the industry should at least insist on improvements — and the first should be an expanded definition of a “user” to include all who benefit from these highways.

For example, a toll road surcharge should pass added costs onto shippers who benefit when efficient roads satisfy on-time delivery demands. The surcharge should go directly to small-business drivers to help defray their costs.

This surcharge, or possibly a notation of “toll miles” where higher rates would be added, should be noted on the bill of lading.

In addition, all new toll roads should have ample truck parking and rest areas. The people who build these roads always predict usage and revenue, so it shouldn’t be difficult to predict parking and rest area needs too.

That alone might actually encourage truck drivers to actually use these roads, instead of avoiding them.

Toward that end, “beyond toll highway” truck stops should be built. That effort, coupled with increased rest and parking areas, would go a long way toward achieving DOT’s goal of increasing safety.

Similarly, toll roads should conform to higher maintenance standards. There should be no lane restrictions, and uniform speed limits should be the rule of the road.

If all this were to be done, it might just lessen the cynicism the small-business community and the public has toward government.

I don’t want to get too crazy here, but it also might convince some that the road to progress just might be paved with good intentions.