Last summer, HNTB released the findings of a nationwide survey that examined Americans’ attitudes toward tolls as a means of funding transportation improvements. The results show a substantial preference for tolls over gas tax increases (41 percent to 18 percent), though the remaining 41 percent said that no new roads at all were preferable to either option.
Still, HNTB’s press release on the survey asserted that, “A strong majority of Americans (84 percent) feel tolls should be considered project-by-project or as a primary source of transportation revenue.” In addition, “Americans would support tolls that fund improvements for either the road on which it’s paid (53 percent) or other existing roadways (45 percent).”
Similar polls conducted by governments, interest groups, businesses, and others over the years have yielded similar results. Most 21st Century motorists, it seems, accept the idea of paying user fees for roads and bridges as long as they receive value in return—less congestion, more route alternatives, improved safety, and so forth.
But while it’s easy to make sweeping conclusions on such broad concepts, the case of U.S. Route 35 in West Virginia illustrates how things can get murky when you get down to the details.
For more than a decade, the West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) has been working to bypass the heavily-traveled 34-mile two-lane corridor between the Ohio River and I-64 west of Charleston with a four-lane divided highway. With limited revenue options to pay the $400 million pricetag on the remaining 14.6-mile segment in Mason and Putnam counties, WVDOT has proposed tolling the majority of the route upon completion so that construction can get underway and hasten the end to Route 35’s longstanding safety and capacity issues.
The West Virginia Parkways Authority, the WVDOT agency that manages the West Virginia Turnpike, would oversee Route 35 with a proposed toll schedule, including future rate increases, that’s based on a 30-year traffic growth and revenue forecast prepared by Jacobs Engineering Group.
Based on the aforementioned surveys, one might assume that this plan would easily earn public endorsement. But when the tolling proposal was brought before local residents at two late-December public hearings, the response was overwhelmingly negative.
Given the ferocity of local opposition, the Mason County Commission voted to rescind its September endorsement of tolls, only to be told by the state Supreme Court that the original vote is binding. With a new legislative session on the horizon, the area’s state Senators now plan to introduce a bill mandating removal of tolls on Route 35 once its construction debt is paid.
Also staking out an anti-toll position on Route 35 is the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). In its newsletter article on the controversy, local members of the nationwide truckers organization vowed to stay on the slow and hazardous, yet free two-lane road rather than pay the $1.21/mile fee for five-axle vehicles proposed for the new highway.
According to a follow-up call to action, OOIDA says that Route 35 truckers can expect toll increases every four years through 2043, with rates topping out at $16 for five-axle vehicles per toll plaza, or $32 for a full-length trip.
Whether the Route 35 experience to date proves to be the exception or the rule when it comes to future toll proposals remains to be seen. But sponsors of surveys gauging Americans’ attitudes toward tolls may want to consider qualifying their broad declarations with the caveat that most people do support them, except when they choose not to.