For Whom the Road Tolls: A Glimpse Into the Future of Road Pricing in America

Changing revenue estimates, travel patterns, and technologies will affect how and where toll roads are operated

July 7, 2020

Tristan Cherry

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Source: Photo by Radek Kilijanek on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered long-standing dynamics of travel behavior across the United States. Though few facets of travel and transportation funding remain untouched, America’s $14 billion toll road industry may be on the cusp of unprecedented changes that could remake how Americans use and contribute to the upkeep and improvement of roadway infrastructure.

The funding of transportation infrastructure in the United States during and after the pandemic will be reshaped by three primary forces: 1) federal, state, and local government revenue shortfalls; 2) enduring changes to travel demand; and 3) technological advancements and disruption. These changes will require public agencies to rethink how infrastructure is paid for in the United States, what planning measures are needed to successfully implement projects, and—most critically—how the forces set in motion or accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to ensure sustainable and equitable outcomes for all users.

Projected budget shortfalls at the state and local levels will necessitate alternative approaches to funding surface transportation projects

The unprecedented mitigation strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19 have threatened the financial health of state and local governments across the United States. The near- and medium-term consequences for cities and states are both certain and grim. In response, and absent additional federal support, state and local governments may be forced to either raise taxes or to stand up new streams of revenue through user fees. These changes could help bridge the local sales tax gap caused by the pandemic and address shortfalls in the federal Highway Trust Fund.

In the early weeks of the pandemic and associated shutdowns, facilities saw a near collapse in traffic volumes, but Americans will still overwhelmingly (and maybe increasingly) prefer to drive as the pandemic persists. That said, the rise of telecommuting and feasibility of remote work may profoundly alter trip generation and willingness to pay tolls to save time.

A nationally representative panel survey being managed by RSG has already found that 63% of nonessential workers are working from home as of May, and 59% of respondents would prefer to continue to work at home five or more days each week. Recent surveys by RSG of toll transponder owners in Maryland and Virginia also show that many current drivers expect to use tolled facilities significantly less in the future than they do now, even when readily available treatments to COVID-19 become available or the economy improves.

None of this means Americans will drive less overall five years from now, but it portends disruption to predictable diurnal patterns of driving and traffic that have dominated transportation planning for more than seven decades. For example, many cities and regions, particularly in the South and West, that have invested heavily in dynamically priced express lanes may see expected revenues flatten or decrease as peak-period congestion lessens (as more people work from home) and the incentive to pay a premium for faster travel decreases.

These outcomes may prompt reexamination of tolling policies, the economic conditions of surrounding communities, and the amount of money users will continue to pay for improvements or time savings. Capturing equivalent revenue to offset these losses could require changing where or when tolls are levied or adjusting what users are asked to pay.

Emerging and new technologies will change the cost calculus used to build and operate toll roads

Although revenue shortfalls and changing travel demand patterns will alter decision-making around how and where to apply tolls, the story is further complicated by emerging technologies that could lessen barriers to collecting revenue on facilities of all kinds.

A major barrier to implementing tolls is the exquisitely expensive infrastructure required to collect and manage payments such as all-electronic tolling (AET) systems like E-ZPass. For example, recent cost estimates to stand up a statewide AET system in Connecticut included $2.5 million per exit/entrance gantry, $1.9 million per mile of fiberoptic cable to transmit data, and operating costs of approximately $275 per 1,000 vehicles.

While heavily traveled corridors throughout the United States can justify these steep upfront costs, much of this infrastructure may slowly become obsolete for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. AET systems and transponder device services are likely to be supplanted by connected-vehicle payment systems that are now being integrated into many new vehicles. Vehicles may soon come equipped with near-field communication technologies and cellular data services to transmit data wirelessly to nearby vehicles and infrastructure.

The proliferation of connected-vehicle payment services may significantly change the cost-benefit relationship of implementing automatic vehicle processing and, by extension, where tolling may be feasible. This could contribute to closing the revenue gap caused by collapsing tax bases or nearly empty express lanes. New sites could include busy arterials, secondary state highways, and cordon pricing in cities and towns.

Although implementing AET has many other complications, not the least of which are out-of-state reciprocity arrangements and privacy concerns, the day when a driver’s credit-card-tethered phone or vehicle charges a fee each time they leave the driveway may be in sight. Even without a technological revolution, “conventional” AET has already changed the economics of cash-based tolling. These applications could continue to expand to lower-volume roads as costs decline.

New data collection can inform next steps for toll road operators and state and local governments

As the United States grapples with the dual health and economic challenges of 2020, tolled infrastructure will still have a place in future transportation networks. However, the present moment will almost certainly bring change and disruption to how the United States pays for upkeep of its over 4 million miles of roads, bridges, tunnels, and highways. These changes will be hard to predict. Depending on the politics of road pricing and technological adoption, tolling may be complemented by other ways to collect fees, such as integrated mileage-based user fees.

Understanding how the public will adapt and respond to these changes will require states and agencies to proactively engage with their constituents and customers to learn about their preferences and new travel patterns. In some cases, complex traffic and revenue studies of facilities backed by bond purchases will require updates since some assumptions will likely no longer apply. And while passively collected mobile data (“big data”) can be useful for describing existing travel patterns, surveys of drivers and customers will still be necessary to develop forecasts.

Surveys will allow road operators to recalibrate equitable tolling structures that help collect needed revenue and facilitate economic recovery while also ensuring any impacts do not fall disproportionately on lower-income users. With proper consideration, user fees can be an efficient and equitable method to pay for infrastructure, but only with careful attention to who pays.

Tristan Cherry