Wednesday 12 September 2012

News shorts - Florida, India, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas

Florida pursuing tolled upgrade of existing highway

The Florida Times-Union/ reports that the Florida Department of Transportation is to commission an upgrade of the First Coast Outer Beltway that will see it widened to a grade separated four lanes highway with tolls.  Tolling will be done on a segmented basis, with rates of US$0.20-US$0.60 for cars per segment, effectively creating a distance based toll along the highway.  Florida Turnpike Enterprise (a business unit of Florida DoT) will finance the project estimated to cost US$230 million which will be recovered from tolls which will be entirely electronic free flow using the established SunPass system.

Despite criticism from some quarters, based on a vote in 1988 that saw Jacksonville abolish tolls in favour of a small sales tax (an economically regressive and irrational measure) "Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said the current sales taxes and gas taxes that fund transportation are not sufficient to build something like the Outer Beltway"

Potholes on Indian toll road highlights poor incentives

The Times of India reports that "The Ghoti-Padhga toll-way stretch on the Mumbai-Agra national highway has been ridden with potholes, for nearly the past one month, making it difficult for motorists to drive through the affected sections".

Apparently, the company responsible is simply uninterested in maintenance with the report continuing:  "maintenance was looked upon as a part of expenses rather than looking towards it as re-investment for earnings and hence the proposal had not received a response till date".

Such scant regard for some basic standards on a toll highway indicates an appalling failure on behalf of the procurement and contracting regime for the road.  However, a market led approach would suggest that motorists will increasingly abandon this toll road on the basis that it isn't worth the money.  On the other hand, if the development of PPPs for toll roads in India is on the basis that the private sector will maintain minimum standards of service, then there need to be constraints on such behaviour built into concessions.

New York - Governor "considering" Sam Schwartz's tolling plan

The New York Observer reports that Governor Andrew Cuomo is apparently "reviewing the proposal" of former New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Sam Schwartz to reform tolling on crossing adjacent to the city in the state.  I wrote extensively about the proposal, which is adamantly NOT called congestion pricing, because it effectively delivers an integrated approach to tolling of major crossings in New York, reducing the prices for trips more distant from Manhatten and introducing tolls on untolled East River crossings.

The article rightly says it is far too early to say whether it will get support, but it is encouraging that the Governor at least appears to be open minded on the issue.  It has the potential to raise more revenue and help reduce traffic congestion, but it also will balance support from those who will pay less on some crossings and those who will pay more or start to pay on others.

North Carolina story shows importance of quality control in enforcement

TV station WRAL, Raleigh North Carolina reports on the case of Jerry Hester, a man who was pursued for enforcement of an unpaid toll bill for the Triangle Expressway, because of human error that mistook the letter N for the letter M.   It appears it took the intervention of a consumer advocacy TV programme (5 On Your Side) to get it resolved with "NC Quick Pass" - the operational arm of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

Electronic free flow tolling is being rolled out across the US, although it is some years behind the likes of Australia which has had it now for well over a decade.  Unfortunately, some key lessons learned from free flow systems elsewhere don't always seem to have been embraced.  In this case, it should have been easy for enforcement appeal staff to double check the number plate image and eliminate the penalty altogether, rather than it remaining in the escalating bureaucracy of enforcement.

It certainly shouldn't take a TV programme to highlight such a problem.  This is standard best practice in the tolling industry.

Ohio Turnpike Director advocating wider use of revenues

Columbus Morning Call reports that the Ohio Turnpike Director Richard Hodges is advocating a law change to allow surplus revenues from the toll road to be spent on transportation projects in the state further than 1 mile away from the road.   It appears to be driven by concerns about the growing reserve in the accounts of the Turnpike, which could reflect a lack of useful projects that can be funded from surplus revenues.  Of course, if the turnpike is privatised, this will effectively be the return on the capital asset value that could be distributed to shareholders.

The report also summarises the financial position of the road:

The turnpike, which has $50 million in its reserve, expects to generate $270 million in revenue this year, the newspaper reports. Its operating expenses stand at about $122 million and the turnpike will spend about $90 million on capital projects this year.

Ohio Turnpike thwarts trucking scam

The Trucker reports on how the Ohio Turnpike has stopped a scam whereby truckers avoided paying the full toll price by lying about "lost" toll tickets.  Being a closed toll system (whereby toll tickets are issued at the start, and used to calculate the total toll price depending what exit the vehicle departs from), there was scope to cheat, as described on the website below:

The scam worked this way: A trucker taking a ticket at the turnpike's entry near Indiana would travel across Ohio and claim the ticket was lost when he hit the last interchange before Pennsylvania.

The trucker would pay $44 for the "lost" ticket, the same he'd pay if he had turned in the ticket. After delivering his load to the east, the trucker would head back on the turnpike.

Instead of crossing the state and paying another $44, the trucker would leave the turnpike several exits before the Indiana border and feed the "lost" ticket to an automated fare machine. Toll tickets don't designate east or west travel.

To the machine, the trucker had traveled only a short distance from the Indiana border and would pay, depending on the exit, a toll less than $10, turnpike officials said.

Of course the state is contemplating privatising this toll road, which would raise the incentive to plug any potential holes in revenue, most likely by better incentivising electronic tolling accounts.

Texas concerns about enforcement of free flow tolls against Mexican vehicles

The Texas Tribune reports that officials in El Paso, Texas and some other Texas authorities are increasingly concerned about the inability to enforce violations of tolls on electronic free flow toll facilities on vehicles registered in Mexico.

In short, this is an issue that has been an emerging concern in Europe which faces much of the same issues around cross-border enforcement of such offences.

At the moment Mexican vehicles appear to be a very small proportion of vehicles on Texan roads, but the fear is that more free flow tolling offers opportunities for free-loading.  One idea proposed by El Paso Mayor  John Cook would be the ability to impound vehicles with such fines - effectively the London approach to those who persistently evade the congestion charge.

The report notes:

The situation that some El Paso officials fear is already emerging in a border community more than 800 miles away. The first portion of State Highway 550 opened in Cameron County last year. When completed, the toll road will connect the Port of Brownsville to U.S. Highway 77.

Cars from Mexico on the road, minimal so far but expected to increase, are not being billed, said David Garcia, the assistant coordinator for the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority

One option would be to enable the border crossing to also be a check for such liabilities, but enabling that is likely to be far from easy.

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