Tennessee lawmakers could find out this year if highway funding is on a dirt road or headed toward a smoother ride by starting up a toll system.
A bill currently before the legislature would authorize the Tennessee Department of Transportation to develop tollway or toll facility projects and pay for new highways out of the tollway account.
Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, told The Tennessean newspaper a few days ago that he likes the bill and noted it could avert a need to raise the state's 21.4 cent gasoline tax to pay for new road projects.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Blountville Republican, isn't ready to turn the starter key in favor of the legislative measure.
"I'm not sold on toll roads," Ramsey said. "Maybe individually in certain localities where the locals are willing to step up and realize they need a road ... that is different. For example, in Sumner County they have been trying to get a bridge for years to help out with their traffic situation. Local government up there is saying ‘We'll pitch in part of this,' and making it a toll road will be all right with them. But as far as setting a statewide policy on toll roads ... I'm not sold on it."
State Rep. Nathan Vaughn, a member of the House Transportation Committee, believes it's worth looking under the proposal's hood because federal funds for roads are moving in reverse. Federal funds currently supply more than 50 percent of TDOT's annual budget.
"The problem we have right now is we know we do not have enough money to basically do all of the road projects and maintenance that is necessary in Tennessee. ... I think it is prudent for us to at least examine other options and alternatives," said Vaughn, D-Kingsport.
According to TDOT, Tennessee's road system stretches 87,259 miles, enough to circle the world more than three times. Included in the state highway system are 1,074 miles of interstate highways. Although the interstate system makes up just over 1 percent of the total highway mileage, it carries one-quarter of all the traffic in Tennessee.
A presentation made by Innovation Briefs Publisher C. Kenneth Orski to a transportation leaders meeting held by the National Conference of State Legislatures last December laid out the emerging role of tolling in highway financing.
"That there is a high level of interest in highway tolling is no longer in dispute," Orski said.
Orski pointed to a federal survey showing that as many as 23 states have plans to build toll facilities. Of these, 17 already have toll facilities, and six are planning their first toll roads or toll lanes, including Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina.
"Tolls, we are told, are a true road user fee as contrasted with the per-gallon fuel tax which is only a surrogate measure of use," he said. "In a toll-based system motorists pay only for the actual use and the wear and tear of the roads they travel on. The collected money remains in the jurisdiction - often in the same corridor that provides the service. ... State transportation officials tell us that tolls are the only way they can finance new road capacity because most of their budget already goes into maintenance and reconstruction of existing roads.
"Tolling allows states to build new roads that otherwise would remain on the drawing board for many years if they had to be funded with traditional pay-as-you-go financing. Another motive for tolling is to augment current gas tax revenues to meet shortfalls in local transportation budgets - shortfalls that many states are struggling with these days."
One "often unstated assumption," said Orski, is that state legislatures and Congress will continue to be reluctant to raise fuel taxes to fund new highways, no matter which political party is in power.
Orski also pointed out that tolls are seen as a tool for reducing traffic congestion.
"Variable pricing - where tolls go up and down with the level of demand - allows highway operators to adjust the flow of traffic dynamically, and thus maintain the lanes relatively free of congestion even at the height of rush hour," he noted. "At the same time, priced lanes are becoming increasingly accepted by the driving public. Electronic toll collection technology has eliminated a major public objection to tolling because drivers are no longer required to stop at toll booths."
Private investment capital is also playing a growing role in highway financing. Texas, Virginia and Indiana are leading in this area, Orski said.
"All three states view privately financed toll facilities as a means of expanding road capacity without public borrowing or a tax increase..." he said. "In Northern Virginia, express toll lanes, paid for largely by the private sector, are being added to expand the capacity of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95. ... These three states are the trailblazers."
For more about the "Tennessee Tollway Act" go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." The bill's number is HB 1204.
For more go about C. Kenneth Orski's views on transportation go to www.innobriefs.com.