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Drivers may pay to ride on new roads
Tolls play major role in Riley’s highway plan

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Bob Riley is looking for ways to increase highway construction without raising the state gas tax, and toll roads will likely play a major role in his plan.

At Riley’s direction, the state Department of Transportation is studying the feasibility of getting private companies to build — or to partner with the state — on some new roads that would use tolls to cover construction costs.

“We’ve got four or five projects in the state right now that if we wait on the federal government to fund them, it will be 15 or 20 years from now,” Riley said. “If we can come up with a toll solution to some of these, we will probably pursue that.”

Department spokesman Tony Harris said the department is studying the feasibility of using tolls for a southern bypass in Huntsville, an elevated highway where heavily congested U.S. 280 approaches Interstate 459 at Birmingham, and a limited-access highway connecting Dothan with Interstate 10 in the Florida Panhandle. The department’s research has already ruled out the feasibility of a toll road for Montgomery’s proposed outer loop, he said.

Optimistic about research

State Transportation Director Joe McInnes is optimistic about where the research will lead.

“I think there will be some positive comment about that in the not too distant future,” he said.

Riley said another option he is considering is using revenue from natural gas wells in state-owned waters along the Alabama coast to build a hurricane evacuation route in Mobile or Baldwin counties.

In McInnes’ view, his department is caught in a highway construction squeeze. The state’s population is growing and road construction prices are rising much faster than the inflation rate, but gas tax revenue, which finances road projects, is relatively flat because Alabamians are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Alabama’s gas tax is 18 cents per gallon, and it doesn’t fluctuate with the price of gas. The tax produced $408 million in fiscal 2006, down nearly 1 percent from the previous year. So far this year, gas tax revenue is running about 1 percent ahead of last year, according to the Department of Revenue.

Riley and McInnes said a gas tax increase is not being considered. “When you look at the price of gasoline today, no one wants to increase it,” Riley said.

State Sen. Bobby Denton, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, shares their view. “If there was a 2 cent tax, we’d be run out of the county,” Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, said.

Alabama currently has no toll roads, but it does have four privately operated toll bridges: one in Tuscaloosa, two around Montgomery, and one between Foley and Baldwin County beaches.

At a recent meeting of the Joint Transportation Committee, legislators said Alabamians used to be opposed to tolls, but those attitudes are changing due to the toll bridges in Alabama and toll roads and bridges in other Southern states.

“People don’t scream about toll roads as long as there is an alternate route,” Sen. Steve French, R-Birmingham, said.

Riley agrees that Alabamians are getting more accustomed to paying tolls because they are doing it in more states as they travel.

“When I was in the trucking business and we would send somebody to the Northeast, we’d send $100 or $110 just to pay the tolls,” he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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