I love our readers. One of my favorite things about the Strong Towns movement is the interesting discussions we spark nearly every day, both on our own website and on the stories we share on social media.
And you readers aren't afraid to call us out when you think we're wrong. As a Strong Towns advocate who recognizes the complexity of cities and towns and the frequent ambiguity of what the "right" policies are to advocate for, I value that constant push to keep refining what I have to say and how I say it.
A few days ago, on our social media feeds, we shared a news story about a toll road in North Carolina, entitled "Nobody drives on North Carolina's first and only toll road." We accompanied it with the following comment:
The headline of this article...well, that's one way to frame it.
Another way to frame it? NC built a toll road that did exactly what it was supposed to do: disincentivize endless driving with no regard for actual road maintenance costs, while generating enough money to fix our infrastructure when it breaks. Oh, and along the way, it actually *beat* revenue projections.
We're not surprised folks on the ground in NC want to build more tolls on more routes. This incremental experiment sounds like a success to us.
But wait, said several readers. Aren't you the #NoNewRoads people? Aren't you the people who said, "The more we build, the poorer we get," and argued that transportation spending should be focused on maintaining the most productive existing infrastructure, not building new projects that will likely be long-term liabilities? Why, then, the praise for this exurban freeway? Doesn't this road still promote car dependence? Isn't this road still going to promote a fiscally unsustainable development pattern on the fringes of Raleigh-Durham?
The short answer is that we think it's the toll, not necessarily the road itself, that's worthy of a thumbs-up.
But there's an important point here about how we think about means versus how we think about ends.
A lot of readers are attracted to Strong Towns because they like the ends we envision: a return to the traditional development pattern, which produces fiscally productive and resilient places. Places built to a human scale. Places that are walkable. We believe these are timeless characteristics of places that are strong; that have a demonstrable ability to remain solvent and economically productive over time.
We don't, however, believe those ends can be achieved by the top-down orchestration of where we spend our money, in huge increments at a time. We think that pay-as-you-go and skin in the game are essential principles.
By skin in the game, we mean that risk and reward should be linked in financing development and infrastructure projects. Those who benefit from an investment should pay for it. If they're unwilling to pay what it actually costs, it's a good sign that the project should never have happened in the first place.
We've shared criticism of the I-65 toll bridge in Louisville for being a wasteful and unnecessary infrastructure expansion. The proof is in the pudding: low traffic counts, indicative of low demand. And that's with a toll that may well not actually cover the cost of building and maintaining the bridge: we reported in April 2017 that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet signed a $300,000 contract with a Florida consulting firm to help it “determine whether the toll revenue generated by the RiverLink bridges is enough to make debt payments on the project’s bonds.”
By this standard—are the users of the project covering the costs of the project?—the Triangle Expressway in North Carolina is a success: it is beating revenue projections, and it is paying back its construction bonds.
If we built only roads that could pay for their construction in full through user fees, we would have no infrastructure crisis. So when we succeed in doing this, even in a place that has no shortage of problems with its development pattern, that's something that should be lauded as a model.
If this road is going to exist at all, it should be tolled, and that tolling should be high enough to pay off the cost of building the road, as well as long-term maintenance.
However, there's a "but" here.
The Triangle Expressway does not exist in isolation. It was built in an area that is subject to all sorts of other perverse incentives for insolvent patterns of development. It is connected to all sorts of smaller public roadways that are not funded through user fees, serving development that is probably not paying for itself, based on examples we have documented in many other places.
If you buy a house near NC-540, and you use the toll road to commute, you're directly paying back part of the cost of the public infrastructure serving you. More than you would be paying if the road were untolled. But you're certainly not paying all of it, and it's still likely you're getting a great deal, and being subsidized by more established areas' property taxes.
And the location of road investments still drives the development pattern of a region. A road like this one in North Carolina will probably incentivize more growth along its route than would otherwise occur. And the region would be stronger if that growth were occurring in other areas, where existing infrastructure is already not being used to capacity.
That's a conversation that needs to happen, in Raleigh-Durham and all over North America. Tolling one suburban highway is not, in itself, a model that will solve our problems if we replicate it again and again and again. It is, however, a step in the right direction, compared to the status quo of building such freeways with no plan at all to pay for their long-term costs.