To save its infrastructure, America needs more toll roads

The sun shines on the Los Angeles freeway. Image: Getty.

In today’s America, we have come to take for granted the sad state of the national transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 report card gave the nation a D+ grade on its roads, bridges, and ports.

There was a time when a D+ was not acceptable. There was also a time in the US when A+ was the standard. Now failing is the standard. This D+ rating left the news cycle faster than an average commuter gets home on our overly congested highways.

As I write this piece, I’m sitting stalled on Amtrak headed from Washington, DC to New York’s Penn Station due to a derailment in Penn Station. As a Nevada Department of Transportation board member and long time transportation advocate, I am all too familiar with this experience and storyline.

We all know that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and congestion is at an all-time high. Americans have been forced to just accept long commutes and spending less time at home with their families.

It is also simply accepted that the deterioration of our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure is due in large part to the fact that our Congressional leaders no longer have a vision for the infrastructure that moves our $18.5trn economy and over 321m Americans. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had the courage to force Congress to invest and begin building the Interstate Highway System we have today. Unfortunately, today’s congressional leaders would rather stop progress than make progress, and Americans go on suffering. 

But there is hope. Many regions are passing their own transportation referenda to fund transportation investments and improvements. Voters approved more than $200bn in transportation ballot initiatives this past November, and many regions are increasing the use of toll lanes and roads to reduce congestion to pay for infrastructure.  

Yet, this is not enough. Fuel revenues are decreasing due to the increased investments of electric and hybrid vehicles, and overall higher fuel efficiencies in today’s vehicles. If governments does not routinely raise fuel taxes and/or index them to inflation, and if some mechanism is not implemented to capture the increased number of electric and hybrid vehicles road usage, then America’s infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.

One way forward is the increased usage of toll roads. As we move to a transportation system that will include electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and connected or autonomous vehicles, we clearly have the means to ensure all road users can help directly fund the roads they use every day – not just the ones that burn lots of gas.


Americans clearly see the need for investments in greater mobility to help our economy grow. Take, for example, the recent passage of Measure M in Los Angeles. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA Metro CEO Phil Washington courageously made sure the ballot measure passed with over 71 percent of approval by Angelenos.

Why? Angelenos are fed up with congestion and lack of Congressional leadership. Measure M is the first ever transportation initiative with no sunset provision, creating an endless funding stream for LA Metro to invest in transit, local streets and roads, bridges, buses, and highways.

Another example is the recent opening of Express Lanes on State Route 91 in Riverside County, California, one of the nation’s most congested commutes. SR 91 is a critical route for the regional economy because it moves the workers for Orange and LA Counties from their homes in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Toll lanes now run from the City of Riverside all the way to southern Orange County. The toll lanes are now working at near capacity due to the great need for mobility improvements in the region. 

Toll lanes work and more regions and states should begin to initiate the inclusion of these lanes to reduce congestion, improve mobility and improve the driving public’s quality of life. 

There is no magic formula to funding our infrastructure. We need every tool available to improve America’s surface transportation infrastructure, and toll roads belong as part of that multifaceted toolset.  

Tom Skancke is chief executive of TSC2 Group, a management consulting firm, and is executive director of the Western Regional Alliance, an association of western transportation and metropolitan planning organisations. This article reflects his own views, not those of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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