Freight helping major toll highways weather pandemic

Two major U.S. turnpike authorities confirmed that freight traffic has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal two months since the COVID-19 pandemic began decimating toll road revenue collections.

Speaking at a press briefing Thursday sponsored by the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association (IBTTA), Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said she has seen “no big drop-off” in commercial traffic despite overall revenue in March and April falling 25.1% and 61.6%, respectively.

“Our commercial traffic has stayed pretty strong, so that has helped us leverage out the loss on the passenger side,” Gutierrez-Scaccetti said. She cited temporary increases in state weight limits and federal exemptions on hours-of-service rules as factors supporting the trucking sector.

“If [COVID-19] has had unintended consequences, it’s been forging an even stronger relationship with our commercial traffic through the New Jersey Motor Truck Association,” she said. That includes partnering with the association on hand sanitizer distribution and ensuring restrooms and food service options remain open and available.

Mark Compton, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC), said an increase in freight generated by e-commerce and just-in-time deliveries over the past few years has been even more evident since the start of the pandemic.

“What I can tell you is, [despite] the dip we had since mid-March, the dip in commercial traffic has been a lot less than anywhere else,” Compton said. “We were only down 10% in those commercial [vehicle weight] grades during this pandemic, largely due to the e-commerce phenomenon.”

Since the beginning of March, overall revenue on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is down $118 million, with traffic down about 50%, Compton affirmed, which translates into roughly 20 million fewer vehicles. Revenue and traffic bottomed out during the week of April 5, Compton said. “Since then we’ve been coming back about 2-3% per week, but not nearly quick enough to overcome the loss we’ve had,” which led to PTC cutting its 2020 capital budget by 24%.

According to IBTTA, the U.S. has 342 toll facilities run by 128 operators in 34 states generating more than $20 billion a year in toll revenues from freight and passenger trips. Those revenues pay for maintenance and upgrades on 6,300 miles of highways, bridges and tunnels.

IBTTA Executive Director Patrick Jones pointed out that the upcoming Memorial Day weekend is traditionally one of the busiest travel times of the year. “But because of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many vital and iconic American transportation facilities are suffering severe traffic and revenue declines of 50% to 90%.”

During the briefing, Chris Tomlinson, executive director for the Georgia State Road and Tollway Authority, estimated a toll revenue decline of $12.3 million, or 28%, for the fiscal year as a result of COVID-19. Samuel Johnson, CEO of the Transportation Corridor Agencies in Orange County, California, reported that prior to the pandemic, toll roads were experiencing double-digit growth in traffic, with monthly revenue up more than 11% compared to last year at the beginning of March. Transactions and revenue have since dropped 70%-80%, he said.

Government officials have warned that falling revenues due to a decrease in vehicle traffic on public highways since the pandemic took hold are accelerating the annual shortfall in money collected into the Highway Trust Fund, which bolsters the case for tolling systems to support infrastructure, Jones said.

“As the gas tax continues to lose purchasing power, tolling and mileage-based user fees will take on greater importance,” he said. “User-financed transportation is a proven and reliable means to help America recover, rebuild and grow our way out of this crisis.”