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Tolling in the 21st century.

Everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch. However, until recently, travelers on highways in the U.S. have enjoyed what felt like a "free lunch." True, gas taxes are levied to offset the cost of constructing and maintaining roadways, but gas taxes have not increased in proportion to real income or the cost of such operations, and therefore no longer cover all the costs of transportation infrastructure.

Wear-and-tear on highways begins the moment they're paved, and local, state and federal government budgets are not able to fund new projects at the pace of demand. Increasingly, tolling is becoming the accepted form of highway funding.

Technology has made tolling more appealing to voters and elected officials, making the bottlenecks that occur at traditional stop-and-pay tollbooths virtually a thing of the past.

Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) revolutionized tolling by allowing drivers to roll through toll booths while being charged electronically. Now, technology allows drivers to go though toll facilities (not booths) at highway speeds. This method is called "high speed tolling," and it is being implemented across the country and around the world.

In the Northeast, the New Jersey Turnpike was one of the first to convert existing toll plazas to high-speed toll lanes. Six toll plazas were updated with Express E-ZPass and opened to traffic in 2004. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority took the lead on this monumental project, with design and construction management services by HNTB Corporation. The Turnpike Authority estimates that toll plaza delay has been reduced by 85 percent for a total savings of 2,091,000 vehicle hours per year; cost savings related to fuel consumption for passenger cars in 2004 was estimated at $5.1 million.

Tolling technology is now being tapped for more than just toll collection. It's actually helping to manage congestion. High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, once reserved for cars carrying two or more people, are being converted to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, which allow single-occupancy cars into the less-congested lanes for a price. HOT lanes often implement "value pricing," where the toll is adjusted according to the level of congestion in the "free" lanes. Experts point out that this implementation of the market economy principles of supply and demand simply brings highways into the realm of most shared-but-scarce goods, like oil. California, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Maine and Minnesota are just a few of the states implementing high-tech tolling to pay for their highways.

The federal government looks kindly on states helping to paying their own way.

"There will always be some federal funding shortfall for transportation; to cover that shortfall, tolls will be one of the tools states will consider," said HNTB senior vice president and national toll expert Jack Finn.

Indeed, a tone of urgency for creative funding solutions has been building for more than 18 months as states have waited for the federal transportation bill to be finalized. Regardless of the final funding level, states will need other solutions, like tolling, to ensure that their transportation systems grow with their populations and with technological advances well into the 21st century.

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Author:Finn, Jack
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 25, 2005
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