North Carolina is jumping on the toll-road bandwagon with gusto. Looking for new ways to build roads in the absence of sufficient funds to meet immediate highway needs, state lawmakers expanded the number of projects eligible for consideration by the N.C. Turnpike Authority to nine this session, up from three. The preliminary list of projects includes the Triangle Parkway, which will connect the Durham Freeway to I-540 and enhance access to Research Triangle Park for commuters. The parkway would be a godsend for thousands of local residents–the numbing congestion that already attends an RTP commute will only get worse in coming years, well before the road would otherwise become a reality.

The funding crunch is real: More fuel-efficient vehicles have reduced projected gas-tax revenues; escalating construction costs, up 34 percent in the last two years alone, have further strained the highway budget. The legislature’s tendency to loot the Highway Trust Fund to balance the state budget hasn’t helped matters, nor has the recent revelation that botched construction of I-40 will cost millions to repair. The state Department of Transportation estimates there will be an $11 billion shortfall in road needs in North Carolina during the next decade, growing to $30 billion by 2020. “The bottom line is, we just don’t have enough money to pay for our transportation needs,” says Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who is involved with various transportation issues. “We are looking at alternatives.”

At first glance, toll roads seem like a logical alternative. The user-pay model relieves those who don’t or won’t use them from bearing the cost through higher gas taxes or other general levies. State law requires that toll roads can only be built if a free optional route exists, and most of those routes will see reduced traffic as motorists defect to the toll road. The old inconveniences of toll booths have been eased with such high-tech advances as vehicle-mounted transponders. The proverbial win-win, as boosters are fond of saying.

But as with every governmental quick fix, the details that will emerge as toll road plans are approved offer compelling reasons to proceed with caution. To date, however, the few cautionary notes that have been sounded have been lost in the din of toll-road huzzahs.

First and foremost, the idea that the cost of toll roads is borne entirely by users is a myth that Turnpike Authority executive director David Joyner is quick to shatter. “The reality is, there is not enough traffic on any new road that will cover [the cost of] construction,” Joyner says. About 30 percent of that cost must come from other sources–in the case of the three- to four-mile Triangle Parkway, that translates to $21-30 million of the projected $70-100 million cost, and that’s before the inevitable increases.

The reason tolls can’t pay the full freight, of course, is that if fees are too high, drivers won’t pay them. The same price sensitivity applies to gas prices, rail or bus fares, parking and all the other standard transportation elements–including “free” roads–that require subsidies to function.

The balance of the costs can come from a number of sources, Joyner says, including local ones, though not all toll projects require local support. “In some cases, locals pick up part of the financing,” he says, “and in some cases they don’t.”

Still, Joyner has made it clear that local participation will be needed, at least in some cases. According to the Charlotte Observer, Joyner met with Gastonia County officials on July 21 to discuss the $450-500 million Garden Parkway that would connect I-85 in western Gastonia to I-485 near the Charlotte airport. Joyner told the officials that local governments “must contribute” to the projects, the Observer article said.

That the Triangle Parkway might need local funds would be news to the area’s elected officials, many of whom have already lent their support for the project via city, county and local transportation agency resolutions. Reckhow, who backs the toll road in principle, says that her understanding is that “these roads will be paying for themselves.”

What that local support might look like is a matter of speculation, as none of the toll projects has advanced to the financial planning stage. But tax increment financing, a device approved by the legislature this year for the first time, has been suggested as a possible local option, as has a local sales tax, which could free up budget money if not pay directly for right-of-way acquisition and other costs. The Regional Transportation Alliance, a highway-centric coalition of Triangle business and civic interests, has been lobbying the legislature to pass local revenue options to raise money for transportation needs.

The idea that additional local revenues should be plowed into transportation assumes that a toll road or any new roads are at the top of the area’s priority list. The list of the area’s needs is long, made ever more pressing by the dumping of unfunded federal mandates on local and state governments. Overcrowded and inadequate schools, a collapsing public health infrastructure made worse by federal Medicaid cuts, shrinking city services, deteriorating water systems–the list of real human needs dwarfs any argument that mobility takes precedence for whatever spare change may be floating around.

Even if federal taxpayer dollars plus tolls cover the cost of the Triangle Parkway, there’s another important question to be asked: If revenue projections fall short, who will cover the deficit? This is not an idle concern: The $1.2 billion, 15-mile San Joaquin Hills toll road in southern California has been in serious financial trouble since it opened and required a fat state bailout that may recur. Other states have considered selling their toll roads to private concerns as a way to avoid an ongoing financial drain, especially as the roads age and need repairs.

Though toll road plans are sprouting across the nation at a strip-mall pace, countercurrents have emerged in North Carolina and elsewhere. More than 1,600 Union County residents signed a petition opposing the $200 million Monroe Connector toll road; Union County state Rep. Curtis Blackwood, a Republican, opposes the road partly because he thinks it would hurt the small communities along N.C. 74 that would be bypassed by the connector. Environmental concerns are beginning to percolate around the $400-500 million Cape Fear Skyway that will connect U.S. 421 in Wilmington with U.S. 17 in Brunswick County, as well as the Mid-Currituck Bridge that would link the northern Outer Banks with mainland Currituck County.

In Texas, which has adopted the nation’s most ambitious toll-road program, which includes dozens of new tolled highways as well as the massive, $185 billion, privately financed Trans-Texas Corridor, a coalition of conservative farm and property-rights advocates and liberal anti-sprawl and environmental opponents has been mobilizing to monkey-wrench the program; Austin officials who previously supported a regional web of toll roads have recanted, saying they were misled about projected use and cost figures.

Ongoing financial and political problems “have led many state leaders to conclude that California’s nearly two-decade experiment with toll roads has failed, despite fervent hopes and vast investments,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2002.

It’s worth noting that many of North Carolina’s most fervent toll-road boosters have a vested interest in the concept taking hold. The Turnpike Authority board is top-heavy with developers and people connected to the construction industry, and the Regional Transportation Alliance is led by RTP executives and economic development types. The specific toll road projects on the authority’s list will benefit them directly. Gaston County and Wilmington officials have stated in news articles on proposed toll roads that opening new corridors for economic development would be as significant a benefit as improved traffic flows.

The seemingly scattershot way that projects ascend as Turnpike Authority priorities or get on the toll-road list in the first place further illustrates the point. A Thanksgiving Day article in The News & Observer identified the as-yet-uncompleted western and southern portions of the I-540 Outer Loop as toll roads, possibly the first ones to be built; prior to that, however, I-540 had not even been mentioned as a possible toll-road candidate in media accounts or Turnpike Authority statements.

The lukewarm reception given the I-540 proposal by local officials quoted in The N&O piece contrasted sharply with the gushing enthusiasm of authority chief Joyner and board member Robert Teer, a prominent local industrial developer. Regardless whether I-540 would make a good toll road candidate (and it might), local governments and public transportation agencies should be involved in the initial planning process rather than be asked to give stamps of approval later in the process. But that’s not been the case with either I-540 or the Triangle Parkway. Instead, their inclusion on the list has resulted from private lobbying and, as Joyner notes, is “primarily a board decision.”

The most disturbing aspect of the rush to become a toll-road state is a recurring theme in North Carolina: To ensure that toll roads perform as advertised and don’t compromise other important transportation needs, the legislature would have to study, monitor and evaluate their impacts beyond the simplistic win-win bromides offered by advocates. Someone in a position of power and authority would have to show leadership and be willing to say yes or no based on the facts and collective experience. Competing needs would have to be balanced.

That combination has about as much chance to see daylight as world peace in our lifetime.

None of this negates the potential value of the Triangle Parkway, I-540 or other toll roads in North Carolina. The state’s traffic woes are compounded daily, and Joyner promises that any proposals will have to survive rigorous financial analyses and other hoops in order to proceed to the construction phase. And there’s something attractive about charging users the actual cost of roads for a change, presuming that the absurd notion of using local funds for toll roads doesn’t gain traction. In fact, it might be a good idea to attach transponders to every vehicle in the state and charge motorists the actual cost of building and maintaining the roads they use (as well as subsidized parking and the other taxpayer-funded perks of the asphalt jungle). Maybe then citizens would be inspired to look for a different kind of transportation alternative.