Paid express lanes are becoming more popular in the once-reluctant South

Trucker Tim Chelette has been making the same drive twice a day for 16 years, hauling empty whiskey barrels from Louisville, Kentucky, to the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee, but his workday keeps getting longer because of the time lost in Nashville traffic.

Although trucks would not be eligible for express pay-to-use lanes. Republican Gov. Bill Lee is advocating for some of Tennessee’s most congested highways, Chelette supports them because he believes enough drivers in the state’s fast-growing capital will benefit for everyone’s benefit.

“They’re going to have to do something,” said Chelette, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who is paid by distance, not time — even as the 245-mile (394-kilometer) round trip to the Lynchburg distillery adds an hour. . or longer during the afternoon rush. “When I’m stuck in traffic, I lose money.”

Unlike traditional toll plazas where each passing vehicle pays a standard fee, rate-managed lanes allow some drivers to pay and even bypass congestion — and the fee typically increases as traffic increases.

According to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), which lobbies on behalf of the projects, 54 of the 89 toll facilities opened in the US in the past decade involved rate-managed lanes. They can be found in the South in Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, as well as other places like California, Colorado, Washington, and Minnesota.

Opponents call them “Lexus lanes,” implying that only drivers of expensive cars can afford to use them, but Lee prefers another name: “choice lanes.”

“I think (the name) is brilliant. I wish I had invented it,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the liberal Speech Foundation and a staunch proponent of fare-governing lanes.

The marketing pitch is important, particularly in the conservative South where voters have long resisted anything resembling a tax increase. But as fuel tax revenue and federal infrastructure payments fall short of the need to repair aging roads or add capacity to ease congestion, the projects are gaining favor — even, and perhaps especially, in states led by Republicans where “toll” has been noted is considered a four-letter word in more ways than one.

“All you’re doing is allowing those who are wealthy enough to use those lanes faster to get to work,” said Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans for Toll-free Highways. “It’s like a scapegoat for state legislatures to say, ‘We solved the problem.’ No, you kicked the can down the road.”

Proponents counter that the lanes are a way to pay for roads without raising taxes, though they acknowledge they’re sometimes a tough sell — particularly the public-private partnerships that have funded many of the projects.

“If you have someone who is anti-tax and pro-free market, they might say it’s a great idea,” said Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of IBTTA. “Then if you tell them the company is from Spain or Australia, they’ll say, ‘I don’t want foreigners owning motorways.’ You often see opposition to toll facilities before people use them, but once they’re open, people realize that they are gaining value … resistance tends to fall.”

California’s experience with tolls—both traditional plazas and rate-managed lanes—has provided fodder for advocates on both sides of the heated debate.

A grand jury in Orange County examined a state agency created to build three traditional toll roads. Its report, issued in 2021, found that on the one hand, California produced “excellent roads with minimal taxes.” But on the other hand, jurors found a lot of debt and the need to change the original plans amid an economic downturn meant drivers are set to pay $28 billion by 2053 for roads that cost a tenth of that to build.

The nation’s first rate management lane opened in 1995 in Orange County, using a public-private partnership to finance it. Poole, who advised on the project and still calls it a model for others, said officials agreed not to add free lanes to the corridor for 35 years. Increasing development eventually made that impossible, so the county ended the contract and paid the company for its lost revenue. New bonds were issued and the tolls had to remain in place to pay them.

“These agencies often become self-serving entities,” said Jay Beeber, director of public policy for the National Motorists Association, which advocates for drivers’ rights. “They have huge organizations with lots of staff, lots of salaries, huge pensions from the government and they want to stay in business forever. Nobody wants to legislate themselves without a job.”

Tennessee’s governor is seeking legislative support to approve a public-private partnership for the project — one of 14 states that has no tolls on any road.

Republican state Sen. Frank Niceley said he expects Lee to muster enough votes to pass the plan, but strongly opposes it — even pointing out that fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini also liked public-private partnerships.

“We don’t really give these things to the private sector,” Niceley said. “We co-sign the note. And most people who co-sign the note end up paying the note.”

The governor’s administration rejects such criticism. Will Reid, chief engineer and deputy commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the state is uniquely positioned to create a partnership that avoids the financial pitfalls seen in California and elsewhere.

“We’re one of six debt-free states,” Reid said. “We own every bit of the sidewalk. We have every bridge. We have a strong belief in paying as we go and paying for the things we decide to build.”

Mark Burris, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Texas A&M University, surveyed public sentiment about fare management lanes in four metro areas: Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. His criticism found widespread support. from the guides to them. areas, with more than three-quarters of respondents saying they wanted to see more fare-managed lanes open.

Some of the express toll lanes in Texas have allowed speed limits up to 10 mph higher than the general-use lanes, and Hall, with Texans for Toll-free Highways, said the toll could rise to $3 a mile when traffic is busiest. He argues it’s a regressive double tax that doesn’t reduce congestion nearly as much as building additional free lanes — something he argues the state can afford.

Texas also demonstrates how fleeting support for these projects can be — even with same-party control. Former Gov. Rick Perry supported toll lanes, but his successor, Republican Greg Abbott, supported a moratorium on new tolls.

“Fifteen years ago it was all the rage,” Mark Muriello, IBTTA’s director of public policy and government affairs, said of the appetite for the projects in Texas. “Politics tends to change. Nothing stands still.”

It usually takes 15 years in the US for a road project to open after approval, though Tennessee officials are determined to cut that in half. Given a recent study showing a $34 billion need, Reid — the state transportation official — acknowledges the clock is ticking.

“As far as whether it works 10, 20, 30 years from now, the proof will be in the pudding,” Reid said. “But one thing is certain – to keep up with the demands on our infrastructure in Tennessee, we’re going to have to find a different way to generate revenue.”

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