toll roads coming on?

The new US initiative to allow states to toll interstate freeways has to be good news, in the long run, for sustainable transport.  The money will go for urgent repairs to those freeways, which is fine with me; the key benefit is to get drivers used to the notion of road tolling again, as it's likely impossible to achieve true decongestion pricing without something that looks like road tolls. 

The initial legislation allows just three projects but they are obviously meant to demonstrate the idea and lead to wider rollout.  Virginia, impressively, is proposing to toll parts of Interstate 95, probably the state's single most important artery. 

At the opposite extreme, Arizona proposes to toll Interstate 15, and on that I have a question for journalists.  The Los Angeles Times writes:

A proposed toll on a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 15 in Arizona is drawing opposition from neighboring Utah.

"If Arizona has been negligent in its maintenance of I-15, it should not try and foist its responsibility onto highway users or neighboring states who already pay into the system with their own tax dollars," Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert said in a recent statement.

Arizona's Interstate 15 segment is later described as being "in the state's northwest corner," but why not state the obvious?  It's not connected to the rest of the state, Arizona has no towns on it, and it's frankly a bit hard for Arizona to get to.  It's the segment between Mesquite, Nevada and St. George, Utah in this image (click to sharpen):

Az nv ut

So if a journalist can't print a map, they could at least clarify that virtually no Arizona residents use this highway, which would be enough to make the politics clear.  Arizona's toll-road bid is the opposite in spirit of Virginia's, designed exclusively to soak out-of-state drivers.  Given the road's location, and its irrelevance to most Arizonans, the positions of all sides are totally understandable.  Would that really spoil the "conflict" that journalism supposedly needs?



15 Responses to toll roads coming on?

  1. mike October 31, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    There are, apparently, two small communities along I-15 in Arizona, but that doesn’t really affect your argument.

  2. NCarlson October 31, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    I do see everyone’s position on this, but at the end of the day I have more sympathy for Arizona than Utah. At the end of the day Arizona is having to pay for a highway that the state has no real use for, to toll it would be to transfer it’s costs to the users of the highway, which they have no other way of extracting funds from.
    At the end of the day this highway probably should have had some special funding arrangement from the beginning, and failing that tolls do seem like the most equitable approach short of fully federalizing the interstates.

  3. Ross Williams October 31, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    This raises a central issue with all toll roads, do the tolls actually cover the costs of the road. In most cases, you can’t charge a high enough toll to pay the full cost. Instead, other drivers are subsidizing the road through their gas taxes. The result is a “semi-public” road, paid for by everyone, but available to be used only by those who choose to pay an additional fee for the privilege.
    Arizona, like all states, receives a piece of the federal gas tax. Its not surprising that they choose to spend it on roads their own citizens use. But everyone, including the users from other states, are paying for it. So “Arizona” isn’t paying for this road, we all are.

  4. Peter October 31, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    I had no idea! As a frequent traveler of that portion of I-95 subject to the proposed toll, I say, bring it on.

  5. Pat L October 31, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    There are also, unsurprisingly, tolls on the short section of I-95 in Delaware, serving a similar purpose to the proposed tolls in Arizona. Though it’s not quite as clear cut, since most of the population of Delaware lives in the corridor as well.
    It’s a bit irritating to be on the receiving end of, but it’s something of a no-brainer for a state in that situation. Then again, Delaware in particular seems to exist solely for the purpose of extracting wealth from the residents of other states.

  6. Nicholas Barnard October 31, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Hrm, they could follow the model of New York State Route 17 / PA State Route 17 which goes into Pennsylvania for 6.99 miles, but is maintained by New York State. (See Although in the instance of PA 17 this was agreed to before the highway was built and NYS paid for the road.
    But perhaps UT could offer to pay AZ for not tolling it, or they could just take over the maintenance..

  7. Nicholas Barnard October 31, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    Also see

  8. Andre Lot November 1, 2011 at 8:44 am #

    Tolls are not bad if properly implemented. I can see the rationale for both the Virginal toll on I95 and Arizona toll on I15, though they are different.
    Contrary to Ross Williams, I don’t see a fundamental problem with road tolls, as many other public services are partially funded by all taxpayers and partially by its direct users, like urban transit (in the majority of cases where fares don’t cover all operational expenses), education (where tuition doesn’t cover all university budgets) etc.
    However, not all toll implementations are created equally. I think favorably of Turnpike-like authorities with the sole mandate and sole control of toll income to maintain tolled roads. This way, users of a system or road are paying for, but only for, the maintenance/widening/new alignment of that route, not for pet projects in small cities crossed by the road, touristic signaling on hiking treks and other perks.
    OTOH, I think with prejudice against MTA-like tolls, where there is no link in toll collection and money expense within a narrowly defined set of road infrastructure, creating cash cows from drivers.

  9. Joseph E November 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Tolls should actually set high enough to recover both the entire cost of road construction, financing and maintance, AND still make a “profit” for the state.
    Since federal and state governments are exempt from paying property taxes, the highway system is a huge drain on local and state property tax funds, compared to private transportation infrastructure. Oil pipelines and freight railways pay property tax, just like farms and industries and apartment building owners. But land that is used for a public highway drops off the tax rolls, even though a highway right-of-way is a pretty valuable piece of land.
    If we want to remove the subsidy, the tolls on public-owned roads should be high enough to pay for the property taxes that would be collected on a private road, in addition to all ongoing costs. Otherwise, the road is being subsidized by all property taxpayers (e.g. everyone)

  10. Andre L. November 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    @Joseph E.: the idea could be discussed, if all transit operations that don’t pay its costs in US are dismantled overnight.

  11. Richard C November 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    Pat L,
    The Delaware tolls are, indeed, very much the same idea. Their history is that the state’s segment of I-95 was originally built as a turnpike, with tolls at every exit. But once the construction bonds were paid, the state removed all the toll booths at the local exits, leaving just the one at the Maryland state line (a second toll on the Delaware Memorial Bridge to New Jersey also hits most through traffic).
    Because the tolls are both at state lines, Delaware residents rarely pay them even though the road carries much local commuter traffic (the toll at the MD border is also easy to avoid for locals). I have no definitive source, but have read that the tolls plus service plaza revenues more than pay for the road’s maintenance. Clever, eh? Certainly when I lived in Delaware I thought so.

  12. Zoltán November 3, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    @Andre Lot
    Except, road construction and maintenance aren’t the only costs related to the choice of an individual to travel by car. There are, for example, the costs of:
    – Policing roads.
    – Reducing environmental impacts of other industries because it’s difficult to reduce the environmental impacts of road transport.
    – Subsidising public transport that could run commercially if not for the market share lost to cars and the cost of serving a car-dominated environment.
    – Medical care for those involved in road collisions, including non-car users.
    And economic losses related to:
    – Loss of productivity due to injury or death in road collisions.
    – The time of bus users lost to congestion.
    – The time of freight traffic lost to congestion.
    I feel tolls a quite valid measure for accounting for a proportion of these costs.

  13. Alon Levy November 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Cut all transit lines that can’t make a profit and the only place you’ll see car traffic go up is some of New York’s suburbs, and that car traffic is going to require more road subsidies because it’d be peak demand, which is expensive to provide. Cut all roads that can’t make a profit and suddenly you’ll see an influx of off-peak riders onto transit everywhere, reducing costs.
    (People should really stop comparing construction costs of transit lines and roads averaged across all users – though, increasingly, those don’t make roads look that great, either. They should compare them controlling for the fact that transit riders are disproportionately peak-hour commuters, who are the most expensive to serve. Think capacity.)

  14. Steven November 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    I wouldn’t exactly call Virginia’s I-95 toll effort “impressive”. Virginia has longed talked of placing toll booths on its borders.
    Interstate traffic– particularly trucks– contribute significantly to I-95’s high maintenance and capital construction costs… but so does heavy, long-distance commuter volume north of Fredricksburg. Tolling interstate traffic to pay solely for safety improvements on rural stretches of 95 (as NC hopes to do, and VA says that it wants to do) would be appropriate, but not “impressive”, and would simply be a return to an older– and necessary– highway funding arrangement. Tolling Virginians to pay for maintenance of, and improvements to, the roads that Virginians themselves daily use would indeed be impressive.
    I just hope that these tolls don’t suffer from mission creep. There was recently talk of placing a toll on the NC border in Hampton Roads to pay for a bridge within the same “corridor”, but 15 miles further north. That bridge is used primarily by Virginians; many North Carolinians take a different bridge to the west. I’m inclined to believe that the 95 tolls may end the same way… with the Richmond-Fredricksburg toll booths moving south, and toll-funded improvements migrating hundreds of miles to the north.

  15. Mark waugh December 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    It’s a bit irritating to be on the receiving end of, but it’s something of a no-brainer for a state in that situation. Thanks mate. 🙂