With budget deficits looming and politicians loathe to raise gasoline taxes, states are looking to the private sector for help in building roads. “There's a lot more attention being paid to private toll roads because of the demand for greater mobility,” says Frank Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group. “Private toll roads are a way to tap into the public's willingness to pay for new roads to avoid congestion.”
Evidence of this sweeping change of heart has been seen in recently passed state laws that allow public/private alliances for road building. Texas, for example, now requires that tolls be considered for all limited access highways; if collections cannot cover the full costs, then a mix of state and private funding is allowed.
Florida legislators removed the requirement that public/private projects be voted on by the legislature, a move that lessens the up-front risks for developers. In 2004, 12 states proposed public/private road projects; 6 states already had operating projects. Currently, more than 20 states allow P/P road projects, according to the Government Accounting Office.
Even Congress is encouraging private road building. The federal highway bill now winding its way through Congress would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects with bonds that are exempt from federal income taxes.
For trucking, these P/P projects are a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, they can help relieve congestion and build roads faster than states. On the other, they may produce toll roads where a toll-free road might have been built by state governments.
“Our position on private toll roads is the same as our position on toll roads generally: If the tolls are on newly built interstate lanes and use of the toll road is voluntary, we support it. If tolls are imposed on existing interstates or use of the tolled lanes is mandatory, we will oppose the tolls,” says Darrin Roth, director of highway operations at the American Trucking Assns.
In some cases, trucks and other vehicles may not have a choice. For example, New York's crumbling Tappan Zee Bridge on I-287/I-87 over the Hudson River could cost $2 billion to $3 billion to replace, and state authorities are looking to private concessionaires.
Knowing beforehand which private project will be successful is impossible since each case is unique and national experience is limited. The Dulles Greenway, a 14-mile extension of the Dulles Toll Road (I-267) that connects Washington Dulles International Airport with Leesburg, VA, is a success.
“It was built during a real estate slump but now is doing very well as the area is growing out from Washington, DC,” says Peter Samuel, senior fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute and editor of TollRoadNews.com.
Camino Columbia, between Mexico and I-35 in Texas, is another story. The private road fell behind in its loan payments and was sold in a foreclosure auction last year, partly because anticipated NAFTA traffic did not materialize. “As a general rule, the private roads that do best are those that relieve congestion,” says Samuel.
Globally, the U.S. is behind in P/P road building. Currently, Australia, France, Japan, Spain, Italy and the U.K. employ P/P partnerships for almost all new road construction. And Spain's Cintra and Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group are often involved in U.S. road building and continue to eye additional projects.
In general, truckers tend to migrate to non-toll alternatives. However, as congestion grows worse and these tolled P/P roads proliferate — in addition to growing pilot projects that place tolls on interstate highways — U.S. truckers may find themselves without a choice.