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Toll Roads: Overcoming Public Apathy or Understanding Public Concern?

By Christine O'Loughlin

November 15, 2017


If you’re not familiar with the term, shunpiking is the act of deliberately avoiding roads that require payment of a fee or toll to travel on them, usually by traveling on alternate ‘free’ roads which bypass the toll road.

Shunpiking might be the way to go if you’re unveiling a new Harley Davidson on a beautiful autumn day, but for the average American it’s quite the contrary. In fact, recent surveys indicate that the public is far more supportive of toll roads and user fees than we are often led to believe.


How does the public really view tolls?

The perceived apathy or aversion to toll roads often stems from the manner in which toll projects are first presented to the public. When it comes to how the public wants to spend its money, details matter. Vague survey questions about tolling an existing roadway makes for a losing proposition right out of the gate. Because surveys and opinion polls are key elements in the foundation of political decision making, they must contain project specifics and the proper checks and balances to identify the true attitude of the public.

In an analysis of American public opinion, Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky wrote, “Most people don’t think about most issues most of the time.” While that statement may hold some validity, the public has become keenly interested in transportation issues. With state and federal transportation funds falling and public frustration rising, traffic congestion, the nation’s infrastructure, and driving safety have taken their place front-and-center in the minds of voters. So it’s time for transportation pollsters to get it right.


Special interest groups are a factor

Of course, every community has its special interest groups who have an aversion to all things tolling. These groups often obscure majority opinion, particularly when afforded disproportionate media coverage. Their persistent anti-tolling rhetoric can cause a lack of stakeholder and political acceptability that creates a barrier to moving toll projects forward.

Among the toll industry’s loudest critics is the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, which claims that a significant share of Americans oppose tax increases – including tolls and per-mile fee systems to pay for roads. AFTI’s arsenal of opposition includes inefficiency, diversion to secondary roads, double taxation and negative impacts on local businesses. Perhaps their boldest claim: Americans hate tolls.

But, Americans want faster, easier commutes.

On the flip side, different types of tolls have been favorably received at times as well. For instance, the widely known Reason-Rupe poll found broad support for user fees. From a statistical standpoint, there is also data to support this. If a toll road would save drivers a “significant” amount of time, 59 percent of Americans say they would pay to use it. In addition, 57 percent favor converting carpool lanes, or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. The vote is still out on the level of support for variably-priced toll lanes.

The advances in all-electronic-tolling (AET) have played an integral part in this acceptance upswing by virtually eliminating both long lines at toll booths and the frustration of fumbling for money. Considering the fact that the driving public wastes an average 48 hours per year in traffic and an average of $960 in wasted fuel and car repairs, Americans are ready for some viable options — and they are willing to pay for them, as found by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.


What can we do to improve public opinion?

Public apathy can be overcome when transportation planners arm the public with the necessary information to make informed decisions about tolling and managed lanes. Employing the eight themes outlined below during the initial phases of data gathering could well assuage public opinion from aversion and apathy to acceptance and usage…. and then shunpiking can be left to HOG members out for a scenic ride!

  1. The public wants to see the value. When a concrete benefit is linked to the idea of tolling or charging for road usage as opposed to tolling in the abstract, public support is higher.
  2. The public wants to react to tangible and specific examples. When public opinion is measured in the context of a specific project as opposed to general principle, the level of support is higher. In the former context, road pricing is perceived as a choice rather than a punishment. Regardless of their economic circumstances, people appreciate having the choice of paying to use uncongested lanes or roadways.
  3. The public cares about the use of revenues. Use of tolling revenues is a key determinant to the acceptance or rejection of tolling and road pricing. Revenues should be linked to specific uses, not to specific agencies. Support tends to be higher when revenues are used for highway infrastructure, public transit improvements, or to complete necessary construction faster.
  4. The public learns from experience. Support from a majority of citizens often cannot be expected from the outset. When the opportunity to use a tolled facility already exists, public support is higher than when it is simply a possibility for the future. Building support is a long-term, continuous process that should not stop after implementation.
  5. The public uses knowledge and available information. When opinion is informed by an objective explanation of the conditions and mechanics of tolling and its pros/cons, public support is higher than when there is no context for how tolling works. This factor may explain why members of the public sometimes express negative opinions about tolling or road pricing as theoretical constructs, but will use a priced facility when it opens.
  6. The public believes in equity but wants fairness. Public opposition of tolling is higher when there is perceived unfairness. This aspect relates to why having an alternative, cost-free route is so important or why support is generally higher for new tolling facilities than for tolling existing facilities.
  7. The public wants simplicity. When the mechanics of tolling or other user fee programs are simple and clear and easy to understand, public support is higher than in situations where there is a high level of complexity in how pricing should be applied.
  8. The public favors tolls over taxes.

Source: The Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – A Compilation of Public Opinion on Tolls and Road Pricing. https://www.nap.edu/read/14151/chapter/1


Topics: Insights, Transportation, Tolls & Managed Lanes, Transportation Industry News, Public-Private Partnerships, Transportation Infrastructure

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About the Author

Christine has over 20 years of experience in program, contract, and performance monitoring, as well as staff management. She’s skilled in quality assurance and contract compliance and provides consultant services to toll industry clients in the areas of customer service center operations, planning, back office systems, and quality control and assessment.

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