Despite Connecticut's 1985 decision to eliminate tolls and New Jersey's recent proposal to do the same, highway finance is moving full speed ahead in the opposite direction.
Nationwide, the trend is for more, not fewer, toll roads.
New technology is making toll collection more palatable than ever for drivers, while budget deficits around the nation are convincing would-be abolitionists to rethink their strategies.
In addition, long-standing federal policy that discouraged the use of tolls for certain projects took a dramatic U-turn last November, when Congress passed the 1991 highway bill. The legislation made it easier for local governments to incorporate tolls into the revenue mix for highway projects, and also opened the door to more extensive development of private toll roads.
"Connecticut may have dropped its tolls, but the trend is really going the other way -- toward building new toll roads," said Neil Shuster, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Currently, only 19 states have toll roads, but 25 are actively considering building them or expanding existing facilities, the association found in a recent study.
One of the most important developments fueling wider support for tools was the intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. One provision of the legislation eliminated a long-standing federal policy that, for highways to continue receiving federal transportation aid, states must remove tolls after outstanding bonds are paid off.
The policy was designed so federal tax money would not be mixed with toll revenues on the same highway. But states could not afford to pick up the roads' maintenance costs without help from tolls, so the provision was dropped, Mr. Schuster said.
"It's always been forbidden to mix those two sources of revenues," he said. "Now it's not only allowed, it's encouraged."
Not everyone supports the idea. George Viverette, director of highway transportation at the American Automoble Association, said his organization thinks many highway authorities are using tolls unfairly.
Tolls v. Taxes
"We're opposed to tolls because we feel it actually is a form of double taxation for motorists, especially where state or federal highway funds have been used for operational costs of the cofility," Mr. Viverette said.
The automobile association therefore lobbied against easing the restrictions forbidding co-mingling federal aid with tolls revenues, he said.
But in a recent assessment of the state of tolls in America, Mr. Schuster's transportation association said the double taxation argument doesn't wash. Without tolls, the association said, motor-fuel and other transportation-related taxes and fees would have to be higher, eliminating any benefit from abolishing tolls.
The automobile association also believes tolls create a safety problem for motorists, because the barriers themselves cause accidents as motorists are forced to slow down and dart from lane to lane looking for the shortest line.
In fact, Connecticut's decision to abolish tolls came on the heels of several fatal accidents at toll booths.
But while supporters of Connecticut's decision argued that safety would be improved once toll barriers were removed, proponents of tolls use the safety issue to bolster their points as well.
They argue that overall revenue inevitably falls once the tolls are gone, because state Legislatures are unwilling and usually unable to find the same amount of replacement revenue. As a result, road maintence and safety suffer.
Arthur Keating, the former director of tolls for Connecticut, said the turnpike used to generate $60 million a year in toll revenues for the state. Removing the tolls allowed Connecticut to collect only an extra $11 million in increased federal highway aid to make up for that loss.
Moreover, there has been a significant increase in traffic and congestion on the roadway, he said, because drivers want to take advantage of the toll-free road. And studies suggest an increased accident rate since the tolls were removed, Mr. Keating said.
"The mood now is, 'Why should everybody drive here for free when we go to New York and pay through the nose?'" Mr. Keating said. "Since we've taken the tolls off, every year the legislature gets at least four or five bills to put them back on."
Toll barriers also can act as natural safety check points, proponents argue, because they slow traffic and give collection agents a chance to check for such dangers as intoxicated drivers.
Mr. Schuster said even with an increased emphasis on tolls to finance transportation needs, the capital markets will act as a check against the use of tolls for unsound projects.
You Won't Even Feel It
"If you want to use tolls you have to be a good credit in order to compete in the capital markets," he said.
From the driver's perspective, paying tolls is often viewed as a necessary evil. But new technology is starting to make the process a little less painful.
Automatic vehicle identification systems now in use in Oklahoma allow drivers to pay tolls at highway speeds, without ever slowing down for a traditional toll booth. An electronic eye notes each vehicle's identification and automatically adds the toll to the owner's monthly bill.
The technology has the potential to help push along the trend toward greater public and governmental acceptance of tolls as permanent fixtures on highways, said Billy Higgins, director of Congressional relations for the American Association of State Highway and Transportaion Officials.
"One of the major complaints about the toll roads is that it slows down traffic and creates congestion," Mr. Higgins said.
Oklahoma's pioneering automation project is also helping to eliminate one of the major issues that led to elimination of tolls in Connecticut -- safety.
After 18 months of having the system in place, the Oklahoma Turnpike has had just one major accident on the stretch of highway manned by the automated system, according to Jimmy Berry, director of technical services for the turnpike.
Mr. Berry said statistics would suggest almost 20 accidents could be expected for a similar road blocked by toll barriers.
Mr. Viverette of the automobile association said that while he welcomes safer and more convenient toll collection techniques, the high-tech systems still do not address the issue of double taxation.
One possible development that might east the association's opposition to tolls is wider use of private toll roads around the nation, Mr. Viverette said.
The 1991 highway bill eased restrictions against private interests raising money for highway construction and using tolls to recoup their investment. That eliminates the "double taxation" argument because the original funds for construction are not public tax dollars.
Several private toll roads are now moving forward in California, and a highway extension to be financed with private tolls is underway in Virginia.
The highway bill also gave finance officials another tool to manage toll revenues -- congestion pricing.
Under the provisions of the legislation, toll roads are now permitted to charge higher rates during peak hours, as a method of controlling congestion.
Mr. Higgins said he is not aware of any toll roads currently using the technique, but several are considering it.