Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Op-Ed #2: Aging US Infrastructure and Smart National Tolling System

The Problem (National):
Skagit River Bridge Collapse in 2013

An aging transportation infrastructure has been in the spotlight lately. On May 23rd the Skagit River Bridge in Mount Vernon Washington collapsed after being struck by an oversized load on a truck. This incident sent three cars into the river and fortunately no fatalities were reported. August 1st, 2007 the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed without warning, killing 13 and injuring 145. There are currently 66,000 bridges listed as “structurally deficient” in the US by the Federal Highway Administration (pressdemocrat.com). Of these includes a six lane highway in Boston that has a “fracture critical” bridge as does the I88 bridge in Oakland.

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse in 2007
To address this issue President Obama had proposed the “Fix-it First” program that would use $50 billion to upgrade 80% of structurally deficient bridges. With the recent sequester, the program was sidelined yet unfortunately the risks still remain. The importance of repairing the aging infrastructure is high and the benefits numerous. Transportation infrastructure failures go beyond safety concerns and extends to impacting local economies. The recent collapse on I-5 in Washington has also quickly shown this impact. The bridge collapse has caused retail sales to drop 50-80% in Burlington (nytimes.com). In a time where budgets and programs are being cut, something needs to be done to raise the necessary funds to ensure our transportation infrastructure is reliable and safe.
The Solution:
The proposed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) has been in the news lately. The CRC is proposed to cost roughly $3.1-3.5 billion and $900 million - $1.3 billion will be funded through the use of tolls. Push back on tolls is usually high as drivers do not want to pay extra money when they travel. It is inconvenient and adds to the cost of the trip. Bridge use is varied through recreational travel, commercial, or commuting to work. A smarter national tolling system could prevent delays and charge bridge users individually across the country. This system could use license plate recognition and bill users monthly. Alternatively, users can pay for a use permit that would charge them a flat rate. This would be beneficial for those who use bridges to commute to work and commercial trucks. Users that use the bridge 5 days or less during a month could be exempt from paying. This would continue to encourage recreational travel while putting the burden on those that use the bridge consistently.
In order for this proposal to work, education and promotion of this system would be required. Making sure people understand the system and its purpose is crucial to a successful launch. By ensuring people are aware that the bridge they are using is structurally deficient and the toll they pay will be used to bring it up to standards would be more accepted. Recent issues have brought to light the issues currently facing the US’s transportation infrastructure and as a result the general public could be more willing to accept this proposal to ensure their safety.
Since this system is not currently in use, the cost to install is unknown but could be similar to a traditional traffic camera. These cameras can cost around $55,000 (baltimorebrew.com). Additional money would be required to develop the software and an agency would be required to handle billing.
To understand the feasibility of this system and to find out about how much revenue could be raised it is good to create a scenario. Approximately 134,000 vehicles cross the I5 Bridge daily (columbiarivercrossing.org). Below is a toll charge currently being used at the Bridge of the Gods.

(Figure via portofcascadelocks.org)
Based on the above toll and the I5 crossing, this one bridge could potentially generate at least $134,000 a day or nearly $50 million a year. Other benefits that come along with the toll are encouraging travelers to carpool and reduce unnecessary trips. This potential revenue would justify the initial costs related to the project and realistically provide a strong revenue stream for bridge repairs and bringing them up to satisfactory condition.
Issues with Solution:
The cost to install, maintain, and bill, is unknown and could be high. In addition, issues with equipment failure and damaged or unreadable license plates may make charging everyone impossible. Social equity is also an issue, and toll rates should take this into account.
This system would unfortunately be unrealistic to install on all bridges. Smaller bridges that are still structurally deficient will not always have the same amount of traffic as the I5 Columbia River crossing. As a result these bridges would not receive the funding they need. To account for this, excess revenue from other bridge tolls could be used. These dollars could be designated towards the most at risk bridges.

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