Motorists Face an 'Avalanche' of Higher Tolls
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
"The Northeast has become a very unfriendly place for business," says Roth, the director of highway operations with the American Trucking Associations, "and these higher toll rates make things worse."
Toll rates are climbing on highways, bridges and tunnels across the country. But the Northeast, with its dense concentration of high-priced toll roads, is especially affected. Tolls went up this year in Maryland, Pennsylvania and on the bridges and tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey. And officials are looking at hikes in Maine and upstate New York soon.
"Times are tough right now," says Chris Plaushin, director of federal relations for AAA, the club for automobile drivers. "States are looking at any ways they can find revenue, particularly for transportation."
The toll surge is happening even though many of the agencies that run toll facilities are insulated from the fiscal pressures hitting states. The gas tax, for example, is steadily decreasing in buying power as politicians at both the state and federal level resist raising it. But unlike most state highways, toll roads typically do not depend on it.
So there are many factors behind what Roth calls the "avalanche of toll increases" in the past few years, and not all are tied directly to the recession. Some states are trying to make up for lost revenue from thinning traffic. But others decided they can no longer afford to put off crucial repairs. And still others — the most controversial of the toll increases — will pay for new construction.
Big city, big controversy
This summer, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates three Hudson River crossings, riled up drivers with a massive toll hike proposal. But even after the Port Authority slimmed down its plan and refashioned it to shift some of the burden of the hike from cars to trucks, motorist groups still hate it. AAA filed a lawsuit trying to roll back the toll increases, which would continue to climb through 2015 under the recently adopted plan.
For car drivers paying cash, the cost of entering New York City on one of the Port Authority's bridges or tunnels will go from $8 before the hike to $15 when it is fully implemented. The maximum rate for a semitrailer will reach $105.
But it is not just the magnitude of the hikes that upsets the advocates for drivers and truckers. Instead, they claim that the money that motorists pay will go to subsidize projects that have nothing to do with transportation.
The controversy stems from the Port Authority's vast mandate. It controls some of the most crucial routes into New York City by air, land or sea. It also owns the World Trade Center, where a new office tower is being built to replace the towers destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Before the increase, they were raising money to cover the costs of their toll facilities," says Roth, from the trucking association. "They increased the toll rate to pay for a whole bunch of things unrelated to those toll facilities, primarily to pay for construction for the new World Trade Center."
"In the case of New York," adds Plaushin of AAA, "it seems pretty clear the justification for the toll increase is not to benefit the system users, it is to benefit real estate [developers]. And it was not done in a transparent way." The group filed the lawsuit after the Port Authority refused to release more details about how the new toll revenues would be spent.
A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation with AAA. But an earlier Port Authority announcement said the proceeds from the toll hikes would pay for a new bridge, repair suspender ropes on the George Washington Bridge and make improvements at the airports and on its commuter rail lines.
The Illinois Tollway Authority, which runs a network of roads in northern Illinois, also approved major toll hikes this August. Tolls nearly doubled on some stretches of road, from 40 cents to 75 cents. The revenue is expected to raise $8 billion over 15 years, to go toward a major highway construction program. Much of the effort is focused on improving the agency's existing roads over the next 15 years.
The toll hike will help fund some new construction in Illinois, as well. Most noteworthy is the extension of a suburban highway to the west side of O'Hare airport, which is currently only accessible from the east.When tolls go up in January, it will be the first time most Illinois motorists paid an increase since 1983.
Maryland, too, has raised tolls that for certain drivers using some facilities had not been raised in decades. In raising tolls on bridges, tunnels and highways around the state, Maryland officials cited the need to catch up on maintenance -as well as paying for a new toll road called the Intercounty Connector, a segment of which opens today (November 22).
Maine drivers could face a toll hike, thanks to one byproduct of the down economy: fewer drivers on the road paying tolls to support the system. This is highly unusual for the state. For six decades, the Maine Turnpike Authority never saw a drop in revenue; the streak ended in 2008. Declining traffic remains a problem. This year's traffic is down 1 percent from last year, with a corresponding drop in revenue. That is one reason, says agency spokesman Dan Morin, that the turnpike authority is looking at raising tolls by about 25 percent in 2013.
The extra $25 million would also help pay for the reconstruction of bridges. There are 176 spans along the 109-mile road, and many are reaching the end of their life. Plus, the agency is preparing to expand an eight-mile stretch of the road from two to three lanes in each direction. The turnpike authority put the widening project on hold, because of the recession, Morin says, but it is still upgrading the bridges in that area so that they will be able to accommodate the wider road.
In Florida, state law requires the Florida Turnpike Enterprise to raise tolls by next summer. A 2007 law directed the agency to raise its tolls within five years in order to keep up with inflation, and now that deadline is approaching.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike enacted toll increases for the fourth year in a row when it scheduled hikes in 2012. It also approved a plan to hike those rates again in 2013 and 2014. Those hikes include money that the turnpike must hand over to the state to help pay for other transportation needs.