Follow the money: The boom in toll roads

By Ben Jones
The Post-Crescent
bbjones@gannett.com 

On Saturday, Paul Overberg, a database editor at USA Today, pointed to a chart that showed the trillions of miles traveled by drivers.

After years of steady increases, the miles driven fell, starting around 2005 or 2006. The miles still haven’t returned to their peak.

Overberg’s chart represents part of the challenge facing states that are trying to keep their road infrastructure maintained using a gas tax.

"The wolf is at the door," Overberg said. "If you are the DOT commissioner, you’ve got to figure out something. And, the governor is counting on you to come up with some ideas." This, Overberg said, is why states across the county are looking at financing road projects with tolls.

Brad Guilmino, an associate vice president and chief financial consultant with HNTP Corporation, a large New York engineering firm, said there’s been a flurry of state toll road legislation in the last few years.

"Even states that don’t have toll roads existing, they need the extra tool kit, basically," he said. "So a lot more states have been getting legislation to implement tolls.

"Not all have done it, but you have to look a little differently in how to invest and build out your infrastructure. Toll ways are a major component." Guilmino called investment in road infrastructure, "critical." "We are falling behind other nations, we are not adding new capacity as needed, we are not expanding our system, we are not actually maintaining (roads)," he said.

Guilmino said some states that don’t have tolls are evaluating the idea and completing studies.

"It’s not right for every project but you almost have to look at it if you have an expensive project," he said.

Overberg shared some tips on how to follow the money that¹s behind these massive projects: 

# Find out how toll road sponsor¹s money connects to local government

# Look at campaign contributions, lobbying expenses

# Check contracting rules, set-asides and project labor agreements

#  Look for key hires, including former state legislators and staffers

# Examine the document archive at the Municipal Services Rulemaking Board

(cmma.msrb.org)

Overberg said the toll deals are typically referred to as a concession, and have contracts that include rich detail. In one state, they even spell out how long a carcass of a dead animal can be on the highway before it must be removed.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents, not just financing but operational details about who does what," Overberg said. "When you turn the lawyers loose on a couple billion dollar project, you can imagine they are not going to leave much that’s left up for debate. And if something goes south, not just in terms of, is the project late in being built and delivered, or is there a problem with this batch of concrete, it’s all spelled out in there, as well the ongoing operation of the thing.

"You just have to read it, it’s all there."