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Toll Avoidance and Transportation Funding, Sightline Institute, September 2011

Toll Avoidance and Transportation Funding, Sightline Institute, September 2011

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Published by Terry Maynard

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Published by: Terry Maynard on Nov 29, 2011
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Toll Avoidance and Transportation Funding
Clark Williams-DerryResearch Director, Sightline InstituteSeptember 2011
Beginning in December, the Washington transportation department plans to begintolling the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington. State ofcials predict thatthe tolls—which will reach $3.50 during rush hour
—will raise revenue to replacethe aging bridge, while easing gridlock on one of the Puget Sound’s most congestedhighways.But there’s a huge unknown in this tolling experiment:
how will drivers respond?
 Will tens of thousands of drivers avoid the tolls, by choosing an alternative route suchas SR 522 to the north or I-90 to the south, or by selecting different destinations thatdon’t require a trip across the lake?A recent study performed by nationally recognized transportation consultantsWilbur Smith Associates, on behalf of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), argues that the tolls will spur massive diversion toother routes, destinations, and modes, with trafc on SR 520 falling by nearly half immediately after tolling begins.
(See Figure 1.)Still, despite the steep projected drop in trafc, state ofcials foresee no threats totheir plans to raise $1 billion from tolling the bridge. One WSDOT ofcial called theforecast “ultraconservative,” as it was designed as an investment-grade analysis for therisk-averse bond markets.
Only time will tell whether this condence is justied. Yet a review of the availableliterature clearly shows that
toll road revenues typically all short o ofcial  projections
–especially when drivers can choose toll-free alternative routes to reach thesame destinations.
Ofcial estimates requently overestimate trafc and revenueor toll roads
Sightline Report
Toll Avoidance
September 20112
Figure 1.
WSDOT projects a 50 percent decline in trafc on SR 520 ater tollingstarts. (Chart reprinted rom WSDOT.)
Review of Literature
Standard & Poor’s, “Trafc Risks” series (2002,2003,2004, and2005).
In four reports to potential infrastructure lenders, the US-based securities analysisrm Standard & Poor’s examined 104 start-up toll projects, tracked for up to adecade—and found clear evidence that real-world trafc volumes and toll revenuessystematically fell short of ofcial forecasts.
 The 2005 report, the most comprehensive of the four, succinctly summarized theirndings: “Across all case studies, toll road forecasts overestimatedYear 1 trafc by 20%-30%.” This “optimism bias”persisted for years after toll roads were rst opened to thepublic: projects that underperformed their projections intheir rst year tended to continue to underperform overtime, rather than correcting themselves. Jurisdictions newto tolling produced particularly inated projections, withan average trafc overestimate of 42 percent.
Real-world trafc volumes and toll revenues systematically ell short o ofcial orecasts 
Sightline Report
Toll Avoidance
September 20113
 Just as important, Standard & Poor’s found high margins of error in tollingprojections. For the projects studied, actual trafc ranged from 85 percent belowforecasted levels, to more than 50 percent above forecasts, with a standard deviationof 26 percent in the rst year. Similarly, the Standard & Poors analysts found examplesin which different consulting rms produced vastly different trafc forecasts for thesame project. These types of errors demonstrate that trafc forecasting is rife withinaccuracy—and suggest that trafc forecasters are engaged in art as much as science.
Written by one of the authors of the Standard & Poor’s reports, this paper recapitulatesprevious ndings that toll road trafc estimates suffer from a 20-30 percent optimismbias. But it also presents evidence that toll-free roads do not suffer from this same bias:trafc forecasts for toll-free roads are error prone, but on average they have provento be reasonably accurate. This pattern—systematic optimism bias for tolled roads,and no such bias for toll-free roads—suggests that political pressures and institutionaldynamics tend to favor unrealistically inated estimates of tolling revenues.
Transportation Research Bureau o the National Academies: “Estimating Toll RoadDemand and Revenue: A Synthesis o Highway Practice.
Like the Standard & Poor’s reports, this study found thattrafc forecasts for toll roads systematically overestimateactual trafc volumes:
[I]ndustry experience in tolling forecasts and theassociated recoverable benets historically have beenquite varied,
in that demand (and the accompanying revenues) has ranged rom requently overestimated to occasionally underestimated.
The resultant variationshave had signicant impacts on both the actual revenue streams and on thefacility’s debt structuring and obligations. [Emphasis added.]The report identies many toll roads built in the United States after 1986 that haveunderperformed their projections, along with a few toll roads whose trafc exceededforecasts. For their entire sample, actual rst year trafc volumes fell short of projections by 41 percent. For the subsample of toll roads with continuous 5-yeardata, toll roads remained 30% below forecasts in year 5. (See Table 1 of the report,appended to this review as Attachment A.) In addition, the report found that indeveloped corridors where drivers frequently had access to toll-free alternatives, tollroads underperformed planners’ projections by an average of 40 to 49 percent—suggesting that transportation planners frequently underestimate the lure of non-tolledalternatives, especially when drivers face high toll rates.
US tolling orecasts have ranged rom requently overestimated to occasionally underestimated.

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