Tolls on I-40 seen in study as a way to add more lanes

Tolls could generate enough money to build an additional lane in each direction on the 110-mile section of Interstate 40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis, according to a study ordered by the Arkansas Highway Commission.

But federal law bans charging tolls on interstates, except under limited circumstances. The U.S. Department of Transportation has the authority to allow three states to test the concept of making improvements on interstates and recovering the cost through tolls.

Missouri, Virginia and North Carolina have been chosen, but state highway officials say they have been slow to move on their pilot projects, raising the possibility that Arkansas could gain one of the slots if one of those states decides to withdraw.

The federal government allows states to add a lane to an interstate and charge a toll only on use of the additional lane. The commission study looked at that concept and concluded that it wouldn't work on the I-40 route.

"The critical element to make this viable is that all lanes must be tolled, including the existing lanes," Jacobs Engineering Group, the study's authors, said in an executive summary of the study released at a commission meeting Wednesday in Little Rock.

The commission wanted the study in place to preserve an option for funding the widening of the route.

"We're ready if one of the other states drops out or the federal government [eases its] restrictions," Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Randy Ort said after the meeting.

The interstate, now consisting of two lanes in both directions, has proved in recent years to be a vexing trip for motorists who encounter slowdowns because of construction zones, vehicle crashes, or both. The congested corridor includes a large percentage of heavy trucks.

If I-40 was a toll road, motorists could zip from North Little Rock to Memphis for 9 cents a mile, or $9.90 for a 110-mile one-way trip. That is the lowest toll rate that the study found that would accommodate most of the traffic and realize the largest amount of revenue.

"I would pay that in a heartbeat," said commission member Tom Schueck of Little Rock.

The optimal amount that big trucks would pay would be 27 cents per mile, according to the study. That would come out to $29.70 for a one-way trip on the 110 miles.

The trucking industry traditionally has opposed toll roads, but it might be open to paying tolls until the cost of the additional lanes was recouped, Scott Bennett, the director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, told the commission. The industry also might be willing to pay if the route could reduce delivery times, he said.

The commission voted to accept the study and directed Bennett to inform federal officials of the study's results.

The study estimated that it would cost $700 million to widen I-40 between North Little Rock and West Memphis to six lanes, if tolls were charged on all lanes. To toll just one lane each way would cost $770 million because those lanes would have some separation from the existing lanes.

Toll-related capital costs for one lane each way would be $29 million and would realize no more than $4 million in annual revenue, making it unworkable as a way to pay for the costs of those extra lanes, according to the study.

Toll-related capital costs for all lanes would be reduced if electronic tolling -- using transponders installed on vehicles and video equipment that photographs license plates and then mails bills to motorists -- is used instead of toll booths.

Under that scenario, using three mainline tolling points would cost $13 million and charging tolls at all ramps would cost $59 million. If cash was allowed as a payment, the capital costs would rise to $84 million and $263 million, respectively.

But over the 30-year life of the bonds that would be used to finance the widening project, the latter scenario would gross $5.6 billion in revenue over those 30 years; all electronic-tolling would yield $4.9 billion because some people who use the route wouldn't pay their toll bills, Bennett said.

The revenue also would pay to maintain I-40 and the alternate routes that some motorists would use to avoid paying the tolls, according to the study. Even after paying for routine maintenance and debt service, there would be $807 million in excess revenue under the all-electronic tolling scenario, the study said. That figure would rise to $1.4 billion if cash also was an option.

Presumably, that money could be used to pay for other highway construction projects, said commission Chairman John Ed Regenold of Armorel.

"This is the only way to pay for other highways," Regenold said.

But Bennett said it was premature to suggest that.

"We're not saying that right now," he said. "This is only about tolling I-40."

The study also recognized that opposition exists to converting to a toll interstate, not just from the trucking industry but from elected officials and the broader public.

"This is one of those things that can be polarizing," Bennett said.

"Should tolling all lanes of I-40 be pursued to fund improvements, an essential step is to develop the necessary support for the approach," the study's authors wrote. "At the same time, opportunities to support policies in the upcoming federal transportation legislation reauthorization process should be leveraged to expand tolling existing interstates.

"Once support is in place of tolling I-40, actions that could be taken are to approach [the Federal Highway Administration] for the existing pilot program and to demonstrate that sufficient endorsements exist to prevent the project from being stalled."

Metro on 07/24/2014