Toll road convention draws international crowd to Miami

An electronic sign welcomes Miami drivers traveling eastbound on the toll highway 836, near the downtown, on June 3, 2015.
An electronic sign welcomes Miami drivers traveling eastbound on the toll highway 836, near the downtown, on June 3, 2015. Miami Herald

Trading tips on everything from new technology that would allow them to shut down a car headed the wrong way on an exit ramp to the best way to extract money from scofflaw drivers who don’t want to pay, nearly 600 owners and operators of toll roads gathered for a worldwide convention in downtown Miami on Monday.

With 34 American states plus Puerto Rico operating nearly 6,000 miles of toll roads, which have turned into a $14 billion industry that’s growing quickly and commanding international attention: Conventioneers from 15 countries jammed the the Intercontinental Hotel as the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) conference got under way.

So did salesmen from the burgeoning economic sector that’s grown up around the toll-road industry — everything from manufacturers of the little electronic transponders that keep track of drivers on modern toll roads to lawyers who hunt down toll scofflaws.

Whether you consider toll roads an infernal, blood-sucking invention of Satan or a heroic user-fee alternative to blunderbuss government taxation, the convention — which continues Tuesday — had some memorable moments.

When an Israeli toll-road official revealed that his government has given him the legal right to stop and seize cars of drivers who haven’t paid their bills, there was a murmur of awe — and even scattered applause — throughout the room.

It quickly morphed into laughter when an Illinois Tollway boss said his organization has the same authority but has never used it. “We’ve never implemented it because we don’t know where we’d put all the vehicles,” he said, somewhat disconsolately.

The scene might not seem all that amusing to South Florida drivers still angry about last year’s $52 million toll increase by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. (Coincidentally, Monday was the first day for drivers to register for about $3 million in rebates MDX has decided to return to customers because its bond issue cost less than expected.)

How much did the change in tolls cost you? Use our Toll Calculator to find out.

But IBTTA conventioneers were unanimous in declaring that their roads are the most misunderstood link in the U.S. transportation system.

“How did you drive over here? Did you use MDX roads?” wondered Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, executive director and CEO of Florida’s Turnpike. “How would you have done it if they disappeared? What happens to Miami then? How do people get to work? Who would replace those roads? Who would fund that?”

The toll-road officials say their expressways are the wave of the future at a time when federal aid for transportation is drying up and tens of thousands of miles of highways constructed during the U.S. road-building boom of the 1950s through the early ’80s are crumbling into serious disrepair.

“You can’t open a paper or listen to the radio or TV without hearing about the decaying infrastructure,” said Patrick Jones, executive director of IBTTA. That includes 47,000 miles of interstate highway that’s now 50 years old. “But we’ve gone 22 years without increasing the gasoline tax, which has lost one-third of its purchasing power, part to inflation and part to improved fuel economy.”

That tax used to cover federal highway aid to states with some left over, but since 2008, Congress has had to take $60 billion from general revenues to cover shortfalls. “The federal government is spending $42 billion a year on roads but it’s only bringing in $30 billion a year,” Jones said. “They don’t want to increase the gas tax. We can’t keep holding our breath for the federal government to bail us out, because it doesn’t have the money.”

In fact, the strain of the current level of federal spending is already showing. For decades, Congress appropriated transportation money for six years at a time so states could plan long-term projects. Since 2007, the appropriations have been just for a few months, which plays havoc with local planning.

Tolls are the best way to make up the difference, IBTTA members say. They argue that tolls aren’t taxes but user fees. “If you don’t want to pay, just don’t use the roads,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which operates several toll roads in the Austin area. “The only cost is to the people who actually benefit from the roads, the ones who use them.”

But, he conceded, it’s often not easy to convince elected officials of that.

“The Legislature comes to town in Austin, and they’ve got three things on their mind: pass open-carry [gun] laws and stop abortion and toll roads,” he said.

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