Viewpoint

Are N.C. drivers ready for pay-as-you-go highways?

From Stephen Jackson, an analyst at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center in Raleigh:

The start of the toll road era is just days away unless public opinion sways the minds of legislators either now or before the roads eventually open. If nothing changes the course we are on, get ready to pay-as-you-go.

[The House budget takes] $25 million from the General Fund every year starting now for use as gap funding for the extension of I-540 to Holly Springs, the so-called Triangle Expressway. [It also takes] another $24 million out every year starting next year, 2008-09, to be used as gap funding for the Monroe toll road, which apparently looks set to zoom over some delicate marshland areas near Charlotte, causing … harm to an endangered species, the Carolina Heelsplitter Mussel.

There is chatter that the Senate wants to schedule a further deduction from the General Fund, possibly in 2009-10, to pay the gap funding for the Gaston toll road. …

When a toll road company or authority has toll targets, you can bet your last dollar for gas that they will be lobbying or have written into contracts that alternative routes can't compete too much so as to lower toll revenues. In other countries, these “no competition” clauses are very controversial. At the more benign level, these clauses mean frontage roads and alternative routes get new (slower) speed limits, more traffic lights and traffic calming techniques designed to reduce and slow traffic….

At the far-from-benign level, there are widespread experiences elsewhere where toll projects have resulted in street and road closures in order to force traffic onto tolled roads, or reduced maintenance programs so as to reduce capacity and drivability of alternate routes. …

The issue of fairness in the Toll Road Era is not just about paying to drive but is also about the effect toll projects have on the rest of our transportation infrastructure. Toll projects must generate a revenue stream. Reducing competition or other transportation options is a logical strategy toll project companies and authorities pursue to secure that revenue stream and make targets.

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