Toll roads

Toll lanes on Interstate 70 between the Denver metro area and mountain resort communities may be the only way to keep traffic flowing efficiently through that busy stretch. The Denver Post reported Sunday that a Colorado Department of Transportation official said any plan to relieve congestion there likely is to include tolls.

“These new partnerships are a reality, and we have to deal with that,” spokeswoman Amy Ford told the Post.

One form of “new partnerships” could mean deals by which private investors will build or widen highways in exchange for the revenue of future tolls. Such plans often provide an added benefit for drivers willing to pay for express lanes or other benefits. Sometimes, the roads are essentially privately owned; more often, they are constructed on prior highway rights-of-way using a combination of private and government funding. Those arrangements provide advantages for both partners. Transportation managers and taxpayers get better roads than could be built with limited fuel-tax funds. Investors get a guaranteed source of income, especially on routes with few alternatives, like I-70 west of Denver.

Or, say, U.S. Highway 160 across southern Colorado. Parallel routes are limited because the cost of building mountain roads and boring tunnels is prohibitive.

Toll roads closely link use and funding. While tax dollars are still spent, those who drive on the roads help to pay for them in a very direct way. Right now, that is an especially attractive idea.

The catch, of course, is that most highways and almost no smaller roads carry enough traffic to pay for their construction, maintenance and eventual replacement at an affordable toll rate. Those are the feeder roads where people start their journey to school and work, agricultural products start their trip to market, and vacations start and end. Many of them are also roads with a well-defined pool of users, and at the same time they are roads that their users could not afford, except, perhaps, as a rough lane maintained by a blade pulled behind a farm tractor.

Except for interstate highways with their limited number of exits and on-ramps, access to most roads is uncontrolled. With no practical or affordable way (barring intrusive GPS monitoring) to measure who drives how far along them, there is no fair way to charge for their use, so toll-road partnerships are likely to be limited to big, busy highways.

Rural residents, though, will need to pay attention to how they are funded. If a future I-70 plan adds investor dollars to existing federal and state transportation funding, that means users of the toll lanes will be paying additional fees on top of their fuel taxes (which are not going to be reduced). That may not seem terribly onerous for skiers driving to Summit County for a weekend, but would those extra charges apply to truckers hauling milk and bread? If every mile driven between farm and table was on a toll road, the increased costs could be horrifying.

Universal toll roads are not in any current plan, and it is hard to picture a future in which highway privatization would be the norm, but it is one potential result of a wholesale push for lower taxes and smaller government. It is important to remember that a national highway system was once considered crucial to national defense, and it is still crucial to commerce. Making users pay is fair, but great caution needs to be exercised in ceding government – by which we mean voter and taxpayer – control of more of the highway network. Selling it to Chinese investors, for example, might be a really shortsighted strategy.

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