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The Journal Gazette

  • Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette

Sunday, November 12, 2017 1:00 am

The toll of driving

Lawmakers plan for a future where gas taxes are obsolete

Take Interstate 65 south across the Ohio River and you might not notice you've just spent $4. No toll booth stands between the Indiana border and Louisville. Motorists who frequently travel the route likely have a transponder device, with the cost charged automatically to their account. For those without a transponder, a camera captures a license plate photo and the tolling system operator, with access to motor vehicle records, sends a bill to the vehicle's registered owner. 

As technological advances make highway and bridge tolling easier and more efficient, technology also is delivering more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. The gasoline-tax revenue Indiana and other states depend on is steadily declining as fuel efficiency improves, prompting the need for other sources of transportation funding.

But wait – didn't the gasoline-tax rate increase last summer? Why is the state looking to toll interstates?

Yes, taxes at the pump jumped July 1 from 18 cents a gallon to 28 cents a gallon – the result of legislation to pay for a long-term transportation program. Motorists also will pay more at the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where registration fees for most vehicles will increase by $15 beginning next year.  And to capture some revenue from motorists with the most fuel-efficient cars, there's a $50 fee on hybrids and a $150 fee on electric cars.

House Enrolled Act 1002 also included a directive for the Indiana Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of tolling the state's interstates, with a report due by Nov. 1. Don't expect to see toll booths or transponder equipment anytime soon, however.

“We put it in there for them to study it and – if it's appropriate – to implement it,” said Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. “I don't think that's going to happen for a long time in Indiana. Our transportation bill put us in good fiscal shape. It does recognize that someday gasoline-powered engines are going to go by the wayside, or at least they are going to be severely diminished.”

Relying on gasoline taxes will become a thing of the past, Long said, and experts are increasingly saying tolling is the future.

“That's why we put it in there – to get ahead of it.”

Toll prospects

If and when Indiana turns to tolling, the tax revenue is there, according to the study by HDR, Inc., an Omaha, Nebraska-based consulting firm. Examining the potential of tolling six corridors, including Interstate 69, the analysis concludes the state could collect as much as $53 billion between 2021 and 2050.

The study analyzed tolling potential for a 105-mile trip from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis – that's the distance from the Illinois Road exit to Interstate 465, where I-69 becomes Binford Boulevard. For a passenger vehicle, a one-way trip at 4 cents per mile would cost $4.20; a heavy truck, at 19 cents per mile, would pay $19.95. 

The analysis examines the revenue potential in tolling all 301 miles of I-69, including the unfinished portion south of Indianapolis. The study finds an 85 percent likelihood it would raise $8.4 million in revenue between 2021 and 2050.

But Long said he doesn't see I-69 as a likely tolling prospect. 

“The three roads they really look at in tolling right now is (Interstate) 65, because from Indianapolis north it is almost dangerous from the amount of trucks that are on there, and they've got to figure that out. That's probably where they would start, but again, that's in the future. It's the same with (Interstate) 70, and they have mentioned (Interstate) 94, because just a heavy amount of traffic goes on there between Michigan and Illinois.”

I-69 doesn't have anywhere near the same amount of traffic as those heavily used routes, Long said. 

But the Fort Wayne Republican admits he would have liked Gov. Eric Holcomb to have specifically cited I-69 when he put out a statement last month clarifying his position on tolling.

“In a March 30th interview, I said regarding tolling, 'I don't see I-465 or loops around our cities as viable options.' For me, it was never a consideration. So to ensure there is no confusion, I have directed INDOT officials to remove the I-465 corridor from any further study,” Holcomb wrote.

In Fort Wayne, of course, the interstate serves as part of the loop around the city.

“It's a main road to get north to south. We should not be tolling our citizens on those sections. So, I agree with the governor's statement. I would suggest it go further than 465 and include 69 in Fort Wayne, and 65 in Lafayette and maybe down in Jeffersonville,” Long said.

Targeting trucks

The state's “Crossroads of America” tagline is an authentic claim. INDOT travel models show more than half of the heavy trucks on Indiana roads begin and finish travel in other states, simply crossing through the state en route. If truckers on I-70 aren't stopping for gas between the Ohio and Illinois borders, they aren't contributing to construction or upkeep costs of the roads they are using, so there's a convincing case to be made for collecting a toll from heavy-truck operators.

The Trump administration signaled support for tolling in a six-page infrastructure initiative fact sheet released in May, calling for reduced restrictions on interstate tolling so as to “allow the States to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.” 

But the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates objected, calling tolls the “worst funding mechanism available and a highly inefficient use of funds,” noting that 12 percent to 20 percent of toll revenue goes to collection costs, even with electronic tolling.

The alliance's spokeswoman had strong words for Indiana's feasibility report, as well.

“INDOT's Tolling Feasibility Study presents a misleading and unrealistic outlook for Indiana's potential use of tolls,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Kane in a written statement. “The study puts the cart before the horse by making estimates that assume speculative federal approvals for tolling programs and touts inflated revenue projections that exclude hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for construction, collection, enforcement and insurance of the toll gantries. ... Tolling studies overpromise and underperform nearly always. Who can forget the Indiana Toll Road declaring bankruptcy only a few years ago?”

Long suggests the tolls could apply to trucks alone, which – at a weight of up to 80,000 pounds – produce a disproportionate effect on the state's roads and bridges. As the trucking industry develops technology in unmanned vehicles, special interstate lanes could be constructed for that purpose.

“That could mean those lanes will be paid for purely by the trucking industry, with a special trucking toll,” he said, “That's very possible. It would have nothing to do with the automobiles you and I drive.”

Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, voted against the highway legislation. He noted House Democrats opposed the tolling provisions, including authority for the governor to approve tolling.

“We seem to be moving more and more to user fees,” GiaQuinta said. “We get this story that if you cut taxes, it will grow jobs and increase revenues. Meanwhile, we're still sitting on a billion-dollar surplus.”

Side(road) effects

The tolling analysis wisely looks at an unintended effect of tolling: Motorists choosing alternate routes to avoid tolls.

Several years ago, a then-state lawmaker scoffed at the idea that truck traffic would increase on U.S. 30 as a result of increasing toll rates on the Indiana Toll Road, but that's precisely what's happened. The U.S. 30 Coalition, a group of elected officials and economic development professionals pushing to upgrade the route to interstate standards, looked at traffic rates in a January report, noting traffic has increased steadily “with a spike around 2007 after the lease of the Indiana Toll Road.” 

Truckers discuss routes to avoid tolls in online forums, with one commenter noting: “Many run U.S. 20 and U.S. 30 to dodge I-80 across IN and OH.”

The just-released feasibility report projects traffic on I-69 could decrease by 10 percent due to tolling. That's from motorists choosing other routes to avoid paying a toll. Those route decisions ultimately fuel the need for improvements on other roads and highways – repaving or reconstruction to address heavier use or extra lanes to accommodate more traffic. When officials consider tolling, they also must weigh the additional costs it might create.

The bottom line? Don't expect to pay a toll on I-69 or even I-70 or I-65 anytime soon. But keep in mind there's no free ride – what you don't pay in gasoline taxes will have to come from somewhere.

Karen Francisco is the editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.