There are 50 ways to leave your toll road
Slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. Roll off the ramp, Champ. Set yourself free.

By David Tanner
staff writer


Truckers have had a rocky relationship with toll roads for years, with it often being a case of if you don’t love ’em and you can’t afford ’em, leave ’em.

The authors of a recent study say that once a toll road is no longer beneficial to a trucking business, or if the tolls simply get too high, truckers will take to less-safe secondary roads.

Study authors Peter Swan of the University of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, PA, and Michael Belzer of Wayne State University in Detroit, used traffic and toll data from the Ohio Turnpike and other roads to calculate the threshold at which truckers would vacate the turnpike. Their study is called “Empirical Evidence of Toll Road Traffic Diversion and Implications for Highway Infrastructure Privatization.”

In the case of the Ohio Turnpike, the authors determined that 13 percent of the truck traffic left the toll road when the commission raised truck tolls by 83 percent.

“Supply and demand generally works that if you raise the price, fewer people use it and they either have to go somewhere else or make do with less,” Swan told Land Line following the Jan. 15 release of the study.

Truckers making do with less is something Swan, Belzer and others doing research for the Transportation Research Board have been studying since the government deregulated the industry in the 1980s.

The diversion study supports the position of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and counters a strategy promoted by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and the Bush administration that relies on increasing the use of tolling, congestion pricing and privatization.

OOIDA officials have fought interstate tolling in Indiana and Illinois and are currently fighting a proposal by state officials in Pennsylvania to toll Interstate 80. State lawmakers in Pennsylvania have also introduced a bill to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private investors.

“Drivers will use a toll road when it represents a value to what they’re doing,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said. “In so many instances, the value just isn’t there, so they pick alternative routes. At some point, they quit going to those parts of the country altogether.

“The concern we have is that the motivation of the tolling entity is to jack up the rates to all the market can bear, and they won’t be high enough until the traffic is diverting to alternate routes.”

Similar concerns motivated Swan and Belzer to conduct the study in Ohio.

Tolls for a Class 8 truck from the Westgate entrance of the Ohio Turnpike to the Eastgate Exit are currently $33.50 for 236 miles, or 14.2 cents per mile, resulting in the diversion of 13 percent of the truck traffic, according to the study authors.

Swan and Belzer insist that the same tolls could easily jump to 45 cents per mile if the turnpike were leased to private investors. Such a deal would put tolls at $106 for the same 236 miles and lead to a much higher diversion rate, they predict.

“It’s clear that a private operator that was going to maximize their profit in the case of Ohio would raise the rates drastically and end up diverting a lot of truck traffic onto other roads,” Swan said.

Applying the study

Swan can apply the study to other situations involving toll increases or private leasing.

In the summer of 2006, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels leased the Indiana Toll Road to private investors from Spain and Australia.

Swan said a “non-compete” clause between state officials and the private investors prevents the Indiana Department of Transportation from upgrading or maintaining certain secondary roads within a specified distance from the toll road. The intent of the clause is to keep traffic on the toll road and maximize investor profits.

Swan said toll road leases such as the one in Indiana do little to solve long-term transportation issues once the state spends the amount paid for the lease.

“We’re going to have to expand other highways, too,” he said.

Swan applied findings from the study to a recent proposal by New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. The proposal would increase tolls by 50 percent on the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway every four years from 2010 through 2022 to restructure and finance state debts.

“I suspect adjacent roads will get horribly congested and get beaten into the ground and all for the sake of getting rid of their debt,” Swan said. “If I lived there, it would scare me.”

The same theory can be applied to the pair of proposals in Pennsylvania that seek to toll I-80 and/or privatize the state turnpike.

“Chopping up the system and doling it out to private operators is a system that’s flawed. It’s important to have a federal system,” Swan said. “Interstate commerce is really a function that needs to be run out of the federal government.”

OOIDA officials have said the most equitable way to fund transportation, at least for the foreseeable future, is through a federal fuel tax, something that Swan and Belzer agree with.

Although Transportation Secretary Peters continues to push for increased tolling, congestion pricing and privatization to replace the federal fuel tax system, Swan finds the administration’s policy to be counterproductive.

“It disturbs me that we have a federal policy now that permits states to enrich themselves – I think unlawfully – off of interstate commerce,” he said. “I think that sort of system is going to cause problems for the economy and the nation if we keep following it for many years to come.” LL


Editor’s note: As the study by Swan and Belzer was released, a federal commission studying transportation revenue released a report recommending an increase in federal investment intransportation, initially through the use of fuel taxes and eventually moving toward a tax based on the number of vehicle miles traveled. Please see more on that topic on Page 26.