Monday, 20 February 2012

North Carolina seeking to convert Interstate highway into toll road

Hickory Daily Record reports that the North Carolina Department of Transportation has “ received conditional approval to participate in the Federal Highway Administration Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program”. What this means is that it has to prove that the section of I-95 it is seeking to toll would not be upgraded if it were not for the toll, but that it has passed the first hurdle of a Federal programme that could allow it to proceed.

However, the state does have to ensure that Federal funding for interstate maintenance will not be used as part of the upgrade project. The Federal Government conditions also mean that the tolling must take into account the interests of all travellers. The report indicates this means not imposing tolls excessively on commuters, but I would say this need not necessarily be the key point.

I would have thought ensuring revenues are collected from those who benefit the most from the upgrades would be in order, so that tolling is designed in a way that is proportionate. Electronic tolls are an obvious solution, and the more charging point the better chance there is of being proportionate.

The proposed upgrade includes capacity increases in some sections from six to eight lanes, upgraded interchanges and bridge replacement. The state claims it only has funds to pay 10% of the $4.4 billion cost for the project.
Route of I-95 in North Carolina
The state faces a clear conundrum. The line between new capital investment and maintenance is an artificial one, largely used for accounting and public policy purposes. You see maintenance is always seen as “essential” and “core” whilst capital investment is seen to be “additional” and “discretionary”. The real truth is that roads are depreciating assets that, to continue to operate, always need new capital poured into them. It seems simple to separate the capital for maintaining the road in its current condition, from improvements. Yet what is bridge replacement if it results in a new bridge that can handle heavier traffic or is aligned to allow for faster speeds or safer trips.

I believe the state is deliberately and reasonably mixing improvements with capital renewals because it has to, because the Federal Government persists with the notion that maintenance is separate even though funding for maintenance is inadequate.

The lack of funding available for major construction work such as proposed in North Carolina is raising the profile of tolling across the US like never before. Bear in mind also that other states are considering tolling I-95 as well.   It begs obvious questions about taking a co-ordinated approach so users might be able to have a single account and payment option for use of the entire highway.

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