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

Though trucks are out of the question for toll freeways, Republican Gov. Bill Lee endorses some of Tennessee’s most congested freeways, Chelette supports them because he believes enough drivers in the fast-growing state capital would benefit everyone.

“They’re going to have to do something,” said Chelette, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who gets paid by distance, not time — even if his 245-mile (394-kilometer) round-trip commute to Lynchburg Distillery increases by an hour or more during the period afternoon rush. “If I’m stuck in traffic, I lose money.”

Unlike traditional toll booths, where every vehicle that drives through pays a standard fee, rate-controlled lanes allow some drivers to pay up to avoid congestion — and the fee usually increases with traffic.

According to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), which is advocating the projects, 54 of the 89 toll plazas opened in the US over the past decade were rate-controlled lanes. They can be found in southern Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, as well as other locations such as California, Colorado, Washington, and Minnesota.

Opponents call them “Lexus Lanes,” meaning only drivers of expensive cars can afford to use them, but Lee prefers a different name: “Choice Lanes.”

“I think (the name) is brilliant. I wish I’d invented it,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation and a staunch supporter of price-controlled lanes.

The marketing pitch matters, especially in the conservative South, where voters have long resisted anything resembling a tax hike. But as fuel tax revenues and federal infrastructure payments can’t keep up with the need to repair aging roads or add capacity to reduce congestion, the projects are gaining favor — even, and perhaps especially, in Republican-led states where Toll levied was considered a four-letter word in more ways than one.

“Everything you’re doing is giving those wealthy enough to use these lanes a faster commute to work,” said Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans for Toll-free Highways. “It’s like scapegoating state legislators to say, ‘We solved the problem.’ No, you kicked the can down the street.”

Proponents counter that the lanes are a way of paying for roads without levying taxes, although they acknowledge that they are sometimes difficult to 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 him the company is from Spain or Australia, you’ll say, ‘I don’t want foreigners to own highways.’ You often see resistance to toll facilities before people use them, but once they’re open and people realize they’re getting value, resistance tends to ease.”

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

An Orange County grand jury reviewed a state agency created to build three traditional toll roads. His report, published in 2021, found that on the one hand, California produced “excellent roads with minimal tax dollars.” On the other hand, jurors found that debt was skyrocketing, and the need to change original plans amid financial downturns meant motorists are poised to spend $28 billion by 2053 on roads that cost a tenth of that to build .

The country’s first rate-controlled ride opened in Orange County in 1995 and was funded by a public-private partnership. Poole, who advised the project and still describes it as a model for others, said officials agreed not to add free lanes to the corridor for 35 years. Rapid growth ultimately made this impossible, so the county canceled the contract and paid the company for its lost revenue. New bonds were issued, and tolls had to remain in place to pay them.

“These agencies often become self-fulfilling entities,” said Jay Beeber, director of public policy at the National Motorists Association, which advocates for drivers’ rights. “They have huge organizations with many employees, high salaries, huge pensions from the government, and they want to stay in business forever. No one wants to legislate out of a job.”

Tennessee’s governor is seeking legal support to authorize a public-private partnership for the project — one of 14 states that do not collect tolls on any road.

Republican Senator Frank Niceley said he expected Lee to get enough votes to pass the plan, but he was strongly opposed – 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’re co-signing the note, so to speak. And most of the people who co-sign the slip end up paying the slip.”

The governor’s administration rejects such criticism. Will Reid, chief engineer and deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the state is uniquely positioned to build 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 piece of plaster. We own every bridge. We firmly believe that we pay as we please and pay for the things we build.”

Mark Burris, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Texas A&M University, studied public sentiment for metered lanes in four metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, and the Washington, DC, Virginia suburbs. His review found broad support from drivers in those areas, with more than three-quarters of respondents saying they would like to open more price-controlled lanes.

Some of Texas’ toll-free highways have allowed speed limits of up to 10 miles per hour, higher than those for general purposes, and Hall said with Texans for Toll-free Highways that the toll can go up to $3 per mile, when traffic is heaviest. She argues that this is a regressive double taxation that doesn’t reduce congestion nearly as much as building extra free lanes — something she thinks governments can afford.

Texas also proves how fleeting support for these projects can be — even when the same party is in control. Former Gov. Rick Perry advocated rate-controlled lanes, but his successor, Republican Greg Abbott, has backed a moratorium on new tolls.

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

In the US, it typically takes 15 years for a road project to open after it receives approval, although Tennessee officials are determined to cut that time in half. With a recent study showing a need of $34 billion, Reid – the state transportation official – admits the clock is ticking.

“Whether it still works in 10, 20, 30 years, the proof will be in the pudding,” Reid said. “But one thing is for sure — to keep up with the demands of our infrastructure in Tennessee, we need to find another way to generate revenue.”

Jeff Mcmurray, The Associated Press


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