With the summer driving season upon us—in an election year to boot—that must mean some politician somewhere is talking about temporarily rescinding some portion of the gas tax to help ease the burden on Americans still struggling from a tough economy.
But that doesn't appear to be the case. One reason for this may be that instead of rising as they typically do this time of year, gas prices are actually falling due to increasing pessimism about the economy. In fact, some experts even think we could see prices hit $3 per gallon by fall.
While gas-tax talk may be off the table for now, talk of tolls is definitely heating up in the Southeast, most notably in North Carolina.
Readers may recall that North Carolina was recently included in a Federal Highway Administration pilot program on the basis of its proposal to toll its entire, 182-mile stretch of Interstate 95. Estimated at more than $4 billion, the proposal represents the best option that the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation feels it has to fund expansion and reconstruction of the state's most critical interstate highway, says Transportation Secretary Gene Conti.
"Tolling is a fact of life for new construction," Conti told ENR Southeast earlier this year.
That plan is hitting some potholes, though. Numerous North Carolina politicians are pushing back on the idea, vowing to prevent the tolling of I-95 with legislation. Of course, truckers don't like the idea, either. In this Youtube video below, posted by the North Carolina Trucking Association, House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) tells an apparent group of truckers that "They're not going to toll I-95." He goes on to argue that tolling existing roads could actually discredit the concept for funding new roads.
Notably, the Republican leader goes on to tell the truckers that he supports additional investment in North Carolina roads, estimating that an additional $500 million to $1 billion per year, for the next 20 years, is needed. He'd even support the idea of increasing taxes, he tells the small crowd.
NCDOT would probably be open to an extra $10 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years, I'd suspect.
Meanwhile, down in Florida, Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad has been traveling the state recently, dropping in at some major metro dailies' editorial boards to remind them of a few things, including that yes, tolls roads are on their way. Or as he described the goal of meeting with the editorial boards at a recent industry meeting, "to elevate the conversation of transportation."
Prasad actually announced a year ago that the state was adopting a policy of using so-called "managed lanes"—toll lanes with varying rates based on congestion—to expand the state's interstate highway system. During his meeting with Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union, editors apparently reminded the secretary of local voters' history of hating tolls.
"I understand Jacksonville's history with tolls," Prasad told the Times-Union. "But the way we're funding infrastructure now is not sustainable." And, as Prasad announced a year ago, he reiterated that all new interstate highway capacity will have to be funded via tolls.
The state's biggest future effort that hinges on the use of managed lanes is Orlando's proposed $2-billion rebuild of Interstate 4—dubbed the "I-4 Ultimate." That 20-mile-plus project—likely to be built via a public-private partnership—would include the addition of two toll lanes in each direction.
Tolling the entire state's interstate highway system doesn't seem like something that would become reality without at least some public opposition. The managed lanes concept has gone over fairly well in South Florida, though, where congestion is fierce, and may be readily accepted by frustrated Orlando commuters as well. But time will tell if Floridians in other parts of the state like the idea.
In the meantime, here's an informative video of Secretary Prasad speaking last month at a meeting sponsored by the Urban Land Institute on "Envisioning South Florida's Future." It's a 39-minute video, but if you're involved with transportation construction in Florida, you'd likely find the secretary's remarks pretty interesting.