Transurban’s Jennifer Aument is also ARTBA’s P3 Division president. (Photo by ARTBA’s Luiza Carson.)

By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA 

Technology, shrewd marketing, and the appeal of convenience in a “go-go” culture is turning once avoided toll roads into a necessity of modern life.

That was the chief takeaway from an expert panel, “The Pros and Cons of Tolling,” at the 6th Annual National Workshop for State & Local Transportation Advocates, July 17 in Washington, D.C. The day-long event is sponsored by ARTBA’s Transportation Investment Advocacy Center™ (TIAC).

“It used to be you put a toll on a piece of infrastructure to pay for that infrastructure,” said Jennifer Aument, Transurban’s North American president. But tolls aren’t just about paying for infrastructure anymore; they are also making modern lives more convenient. “That’s an evolution primarily driven by technology,” she said.

The express lanes operated by Transurban on Interstate 95 just south of Washington, D.C., which use technology and time-of-day dynamic pricing, have turned out to be attractive to moderate income commuters, contrary to the conventional wisdom that express toll lanes are only for the rich.

“They are young families, with two jobs, two children,” Aument said, adding they are the same type of customers who use Amazon Prime and grocery delivery to home. “They earn less than $100,000 per year.”

Aument is also ARTBA’s P3 Division president.

To be sure, the imposition of tolls is still greeted with hostility by some users. Yet as cars become more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles become more ubiquitous, there may be no other choice for policy makers but to impose tolls on the interstate highways. That’s because fuel efficiency gains and electric vehicles rob the federal gas tax of its power to pay for transportation infrastructure, said Robert Poole, transportation policy director at the Reason Foundation.

He estimated that by 2040, there will be a $45 billion annual shortfall in projected state and fuel tax revenue due to fuel efficiency gains and the onslaught of electric vehicles. Increasing fuel taxes in such a scenario, he said, “is like trying to bail water out of the boat while it’s leaking.”

The nation’s interstate highways face massive rebuilding needs over the next three decades. The cost is estimated at $57 billion for the first 20 years. Poole said tolling the interstates could help solve both the funding problem and serve as a fuel tax replacement. A per-mile electronic toll is a mileage based user fee that – if used to rebuild the interstates – could be charged instead of fuel taxes and free up fuel taxes for other highway maintenance and construction.