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Tolling could mean more managed and electronic lanes – and less congestion

Trucks passing through an electric toll. (Photo: Shutterstock)

One thing Americans agree on is the country’s infrastructure is languishing. A week ago, the president pitched a $1.5 trillion infrastructure improvement proposal with at least $200 billion in federal funds over the next 10 years.

But where will it all come from in a nation driven by divisive politics and averse to raising taxes? Funding for highways, bridges and tunnels traditionally come from gas tax revenue. Federal and many state gas taxes haven’t risen in years while at the same time more vehicles are moving toward electric power and fuel economy is growing. States, already crimped by tight budgets, are increasingly underfunded and on their own, seeking more ways to improve infrastructure.

The first thing most people fear when they hear the word “toll” is a vision of the apocalypse. Won’t tolls make congestion worse?

Come to find out, with today’s technology, perhaps not. In fact, in some of the most congested places – that are currently only getting worse year over year – they may in fact improve it.

While states’ development of tolling projects on their own is rising, they are also using investment of private sector money to fund and speed projects, with tolling as the means to repay for that investment. A per gallon fed tax is very difficult to raise, and doesn’t capture electric and hybrid vehicles.

“What you really need is some measure of how and when you traveled,” says Ken Philmus, Senior Director of Global Business Development at Conduent Transportation. “It’s either done at the pump or there could be a flat rate, or it could be like an express lane. You’ve got to have something.”

With expertise in electronic tolling since the early 1990s, Conduent has helped governments reduce congestion and costs. Philmus has public and private experience in the industry. He agrees that the infrastructure proposal has so far been met with a lukewarm response. In fact, from the immediate response to the proposal, he sees the two sides as being so far apart that it would be surprising for anything to happen in the short term.

“There has to be payback to the private sector, and if they’re not seeing it, it’s not going to happen. I don’t see where else the money would come from other than tolling. Tolling and pricing would play a vital role under any circumstance,” says Philmus.

But reality isn’t going away. Demand is in fact increasing to sync charging systems for all types of transportation – one account that covers tolling, parking and any other related charges.

Philmus especially sees managed lanes heading our way. Managed lanes are high-occupancy toll, vehicle/express lanes, and over the past two decades have grown significantly. Paying directly for the road you use – including a “toll within a toll,” or paying more to use a certain lane – will continue to rise.

Philmus is big on this approach. “When the Eisenhower administration made the highways they didn’t pay for how to keep them up. Now 60 or 70 years later, the money simply isn’t there with the states. Managed lanes is a major growth area. HOV lanes have a lot of cheaters. As a result you’re getting a lot of single passengers out of the lanes,” he says. “85-90% of all tolls are transponders. It’s the best way.

“A few states are talking about truck-only lanes, places like Georgia, Missouri, Wyoming and maybe Arizona. Managed lanes is like mother and an apple pie. Much less congested and many less accidents,” he adds. “There’s also lots of talk about convoys of trucks all talking to each other and all digitally connected. You can have a constant speed.”

Not only managed lanes, but for efficiency, Philmus also likes all electronic tolling. “All electronic tolling is the new best thing. No cash lanes, all electronic. All kinds of safety and congestion benefits. Very simple. It’s your license plate. The way it’s done in New York and Florida [on the Miami Dade] expressway. If you don’t have a transponder, it’s the best way to do it.”

If you do register your vehicle and work with a system like the EZ Pass [in the northeast], or Fast Track [in California], the same as basically using a transponder, you get data analytics. “The information you get from this is amazing. That exists now,” says Philmus.

Other approaches are also being tried out, like mileage based user-fees. They’re currently being tested out in the west especially, states like California, Oregon and Washington.

Congestion pricing will further spark debate across states as they try to determine their own destiny rather than wait for funding from federal infrastructure promises.

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