Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The specter of tolls on the I-49 Connector

By SPUI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Specter of Tolls on I-49 continues. On June 4, 2016, we learned in the Advertiser's report on the end of the legislative session that "The State... opened new possibilities for creating toll roads where they might spur construction." It appears from the article that One Acadiana had lobbied for this change. The Advocate (May 31, 2016) reported that State Secretary of Transportation, Shawn Wilson, told the state legislature that tolls on state highways and bridges are an option under consideration and that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is “very supportive of tolling as an option to fund transportation and to fund projects that are significant." We have also heard Secretary Wilson say that the Lafayette Connector which they are actively promoting is very significant. Could tolls on the Lafayette Connector be a part of the administration's plan? At this point it appears likely.

The specter of tolls on the I-49 Connector and all of I-49 South has been foreshadowed for years. Former Secretary of Transportation Kam Movassaghi was quoted (The Independent, April 14, 2009) saying that tolls must be considered for funding I-49 construction. An expert speaking to a meeting sponsored by One Acadiana (The Advocate, October 22, 2015) suggested that a toll of $0.19 per mile might be used to fund I-49 completion, and an Advocate article (September 22, 2014) reported that a state funded feasibility study looked at $0.18 per mile for I-49 funding. Former State Senator and then I-49 South Coalition Director, Mike Michot, was quoted in that same article saying about I-49 South "It seems unlikely a project of that magnitude will be built without the help of toll dollars."

However, tolls have been ruled to be outside the range of discussion in DOTD Community Work Group and Technical Work Group meetings held this year. When questioned, state DOTD employees and their contractors have typically refused to discuss just how the so-called Connector will be funded. The most we are now told is that the question of methods of financing will be considered at some future time after we make the decision to proceed with a selected design.

DOTD has not ruled out collecting tolls to finance the Connector, they have simply ruled it to be inappropriate as an item of discussion. Clearly charging tolls for use of the proposed I-49 Connector would impact many of the project's projected benefits, and could add new design constraints. Why has DOTD chosen to ignore this specter? We can imagine two reasons:

  1. DOTD recognizes that placing tolls on Lafayette citizens for local travel will increase the unpopularity of their already locally unpopular Connector plan.
  2. DOTD's excessively high planning projections of 100,000 vehicles per day would become even more suspect because many drivers, particularly those making frequent local trips would avoid the cost and inconvenience of tolls by taking alternative city street routes. 

A tolled I-49 in Lafayette would have significant impact on traffic levels on alternative city streets - Louisiana Avenue, University Avenue, and the degraded capacity Evangeline Thruway envisioned in most Connector alternatives.  The current traffic models being used to frighten us with onerous future projections assume free access to the proposed Connector. Until tolls are taken off the table, model projections should include tolled as well as free access alternatives in all planning projections.

Here is my own conceptual traffic model projection. A toll of $0.18 to $0.19 per mile will result in a toll of about $1.00 in each direction on the 5.5 mile Connector. For a commuting worker with a 250 day work year, this effectively adds a new $500 annual tax if they choose to commute on the toll way. Again, the Connector will become a Divider, allowing those who can afford the added cost to ride at high speed and with little traffic, while the common people of Lafayette Parish will be segregated onto the even more traffic congested city streets.

The option of tolls is clearly still on the table. Until DOTD makes the determination about whether this will be a toll road, all planning is simple fantasy.

References and further reading discussing the likelihood of tolls for Acadiana:

The Independent, April 14, 2009, Movassaghi: tolls must be considered for I-49

The Independent, January 12, 2012, Guest editorial: Public-private route for I-49 South?

The Independent, January 18, 2012, Southern Strategy

The Independent, November 13, 2012, La. 1 a good example for I-49 South

The Advocate, September 22, 2014, Tolls are possible to complete Interstate 49 South

The Advocate, October 22, 2015, Finance expert: I-49 Connector through Lafayette would require tolls, taxes or both to fund construction

The Advertiser, October 23, 2015, Citigroup and the Lafayette Loop — what's next?

Toll Road News, October 23, 2016, Tolling an Option for $750-800 Million Louisiana Project

The Advocate, May 31, 2016, Tolls a possibility to fund major road projects as state faces $12.7 billion backlog, DOTD leader says

The Advertiser, June 4, 2016, Session's end: What's won, what's left

Note: This is an updated and expanded version of a post first published on June 1, 2016.