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The toll of toll roads

Toll roads can allow for infrastructure expansion.
/ Industry News & Trends /

By: Phil Sneed

Toll roads put financial pressure on truck drivers across the nation, but Texas may change that with decreased toll rates in the near future. Toll roads are increasingly common throughout America, and this contributes to the widespread debate surrounding toll prices and the use of funds collected from the roads.

Adjusting the amount charged for trucks on toll roads can have a significant impact on the amount of money a state takes in each year. Tolls can also change traffic patterns in ways that affect how quickly goods are moved across the country. Lower toll rates will potentially free up highway space, decrease shipping costs and boost the speed of delivery for shipments nationwide. At the same time, decreased toll rates could limit the amount of money states have for crucial infrastructure funding that could benefit everyone who drives on public roads.

High tolls have a huge impact on traffic patterns. For some Texas drivers, high tolls could be in the rearview.

The prevalence of toll roads
Tollbooths are a familiar sight to anyone who has driven across the country, and several states currently maintain a network for toll highways. These roadways are usually owned by the state, though in some circumstances, states have allowed private organizations to purchase existing toll road networks or construct new roads. In cases where the state operates toll roads, the money earned can go to a variety of purposes, but most often it is used to fund infrastructure projects, such as maintaining the toll roads themselves.

Toll roads are particularly prevalent in Texas, where budgets for road expansion have remained tight amid incredible population growth. Since 2010, the Texas population has swelled by nearly 2 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That expansion has necessitated increases in transportation infrastructure, but the money needed for new roads simply wasn't present. The Texas Tribune highlighted the problem and noted state and federal gas taxes continue to serve as the main source of funding for infrastructure projects in the state. That has become a serious issue, as the amount of tax collected on each gallon of gas has remained 38.4 percent despite rising fuel economy and the increased costs of road construction.

Texas' size forced the state to cope with these issues before other states. Tolls are the only way to finance infrastructure expansion, according to North Central Texas Council of Government Transportation Director Michael Morris. "Whatever money we have now, it has to go to the maintenance of the system," Morris told the Texas Tribune. "So if we're going to have to build capacity, we're going to have to do it with new toll lanes or a new toll road."

The movement to decrease tolls
While it is evident the money from toll roads is necessary to create roads that serve Texas' population, the prevalence of tolls is overloading free roadways. ABC affiliate KVUE reported on Interstate 35, which is consistently over-trafficked in Texas despite the presence of State Highway 130. SW 130 is a toll road which allows drivers to circumvent the most congested parts of I-35.

"Tolls can cause highway congestion."

Unfortunately, Texas freight drivers are reticent to take the toll highway because costs can quickly cut into their profits. Each trip on the toll road costs about $30 under current rules, and that encourages truckers to drive on overcrowded I-35. The presence of so many cars makes this road a hotbed for accidents and delays.

To get drivers off the interstate, the Texas Legislature's House Committee on Transportation is debating a measure that would significantly decrease the cost for truckers who take the toll road.  While that might reduce the traffic problems afflicting I-35, it may also introduce funding issues that limit the development of further road capacity in Texas.

Unless governments in Texas and other states discover a new way to build revenue for infrastructure projects, the increase in toll roads will continue to have consequences for truck drivers and regular motorists across the nation.