Commentary: More Texas drivers are choosing toll roads

America’s highways got a real workout in 2015. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, drivers last year logged more miles on our roads and highways than in any year in U.S. history — traveling more than 3.1 trillion miles in all. That’s an increase of more than 3 percent over 2014.

But there’s a bigger story here. According to an April 2016 report released by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, toll-road usage appears to be increasing at an even faster pace.

IBTTA’s report, National Toll Facilities Usage Analysis, reveals that drivers took 5 billion trips on the 31 U.S. toll facilities surveyed in 2015. That’s a 7 percent increase over 2014 — a record-breaking rate of growth that puts tolling usage on track to double in less than 10 years.

Here in Central Texas, the percentage increase in toll-road usage was near the top of the pack, increasing by a whopping 23.4 percent between 2014 and 2015.

This week marks Infrastructure Week, May 16 -23. This week encourages our nation to address our infrastructure crisis. Across the nation we are seeing an increase in traffic volumes.

Of 31 toll authorities surveyed across the country in IBTTA’s report, 23 logged the largest traffic volume in the history of their toll system. And about a third of these authorities — 10 out of 31—recorded double-digit increases in traffic volume in 2015.

It’s clear from these numbers that as Americans drive more miles on our roads, bridges and tunnels, they also are choosing to ramp up their use of the nation’s 6,000 miles of tolled highways—at an increasingly high rate.

And the reason for this trend is also clear: Drivers — in Texas and nationwide — are choosing toll roads because of the ease of use provided by new, all-electronic payment systems and other technologies that help keep drivers moving on safer, more well-maintained roadways.

Ease, safety and speed have made toll roads a part of America’s transportation equation throughout its history. At end of the 1920s, for example, it was tolling that came to the rescue.

By then, more than half of American families owned automobiles, many of them plying the 19th Century roads of densely populated areas of the nation’s Northeast. As is the case now, tolls were used then to pay for the construction of badly needed roads, highways, bridges and tunnels.

Tolled facilities that opened in the Northeast in the 1920s include landmarks that still carry traffic today—New York City’s Holland Tunnel, which transformed traffic flow in and out of the city, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation’s first superhighway.

Toll roads now have expanded far beyond that Northeast corridor. In fact, IBTTA found that the top 10 toll authorities with the largest usage increases in 2015 surprisingly were not in the Northeast, but in the West and South. Our tolling system here in Austin, for example, came in number three on the list of the top 10.

These findings drive home the fact that growing numbers of drivers and policymakers across the country are realizing the benefits of tolled facilities. Currently, 35 states have leveraged the power of tolling as a proven and effective option to meet their infrastructure needs. In those states, tolls help ensure roadways and bridges remain open, safe and reliable.

While some individuals may be driving less, the latest USDOT traffic volume numbers and IBTTA statistics provide us with real data and facts. Travel miles—and the traffic it brings—are on the rise. And as traffic increases and our roadways throughout the country become more congested, tolling will continue to serve as part of the solution to keep America moving — in Central Texas and across the nation.

Heiligenstein is executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority in Austin. Jones isexecutive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association in Washington, D.C.

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