Study: Lee County needs more toll roads

Lee County traffic would flow more smoothly if more of its roads were tolled.

That’s the conclusion of a study that recommends tolls on Interstate 75 and on various queu jumps across the county as part of $5.7 billion worth of road work.

Robert Poole is founder of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian free-market think tank, established in Los Angeles in 1978. With the help of Cape Coral engineer Chris Swenson, Poole studied congestion in Lee County, using the county as a case study.

The study was presented to the Southwest Florida Transportation Initiative in late February. SWFTI is a private group that works to increase transportation funding in the area, including supporting I-75 tolling through the Southwest Florida Expressway Authority.

“I read all the meeting minutes,” Poole said.

The authority went on hiatus recently after two years of pushing - unsuccessfully - for toll lanes on I-75. The recognition of tough economic times and the drop in traffic that came with them was part of the reason, as was stiff opposition from south of the Lee-Collier line.

“It really seemed a shame that all that effort did not produce a plan that’s moving forward,” Poole said. “I hope our report rekindles interest.”

Poole said that the use of tolls can help reduce future road crowding in Lee County, where he said congestion is currently causing 2.7 million hours of delay and costing $46 million annually.

Poole said the Travel Time Index, a measure of time lost to congestion, is 50 percent worse in Lee County than in the average small urban area. The projections make it worse here in 2030 than it is in Tampa or Orlando today.

“And there are an awful lot of places like Lee County out there,” he said.

Swenson did outreach work for the Expressway Authority. He also worked on the county’s variable pricing system on bridge tolling.

In variable pricing, tolls are lowered for motorists choosing to drive in non-peak hours. The report also recommends the use of variable pricing on queu-jumps on several county roads.

“When we initially put that in place in 1998 only those who paid electronically could get the discount,” Swenson said. “We were able to see how much traffic changed.”

More than one in five motorists chose to drive in off-peak hours and save a quarter, Swenson said. That kind of strategy adds capacity to roads by spreading rush-hour traffic.

Swenson said that concept works on expressways, too, like the I-75 toll lanes.

Area transportation officials said the possibility of tolled roads reflected in future plans.

“That’s not a surprise,” county transportation planning director Dave Loveland said. “That’s actually part of the premise of the long-range plan, the $4 billion difference between the needs plan and the financially feasible plan.”

The plan is what road network local officials agree will be needed to move future traffic. The financially feasible plan is what they can afford.

Johnie Limbaugh, area director for the Florida Department of Transportation, said the recommendations didn’t surprise him either. He’s heard SWFTI, Swenson and Poole make them before.

“We evaluated (I-75 tolls) and the timing wasn’t right,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the concept won’t work in the future, Limbaugh said.

“We don’t naturally go to tolls first if there’s another funding mechanism,” he said.

Lee County Commission Chairman Ray Judah said tolling is a pragmatic and realistic consideration.

“Just look at the shortfall in the 2030 transportation plan,” he said. “Look at the state scaling back funding for the transportation system. They cut $1.3 billion last session just from our district. The federal transportation program is ready to go bankrupt. We have to look at the most viable options that remain.”

Judah is an Expressway Authority supporter who doesn’t like seeing its progress halted.

“They concluded because of the dip in the economy the travel time issue had been pushed out,” he said. “That’s all well and good, but what happens when you get to the out years? I would submit now is the time.”

Not according to the Citizens Transportation Coalition of Collier County. That group was created in 2007 as I-75 tolls seemed more of a reality.

“I think it’s going to be a hell of a year,” said spokeswoman Gina Downs. “This governor and this government are going to try to sell everything they can sell.”

Poole said there are obvious reasons that what would work in Lee County would also work in Collier, but he recognizes the political differences.

“Fairly early on we caught wind of the significant political differences on some of these key issues,” he said.

“In Lee County we were more likely to get a favorable response.”

Reason Foundation does not work under contract and did not produce the Lee County study for SWFTI or for government. The study was paid for by the Galvin Project, an anti-congestion project funded by retired Motorola chairman Bob Galvin.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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