The transportation industry across the United States is actively seeking more sustainable funding methods. Heavily reliant on gasoline taxes to support the construction, operations and maintenance of roadways, transportation departments are facing financial challenges as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and increasing numbers of electric vehicles take to the road.

To maintain safe and efficient transportation infrastructure while meeting the evolving needs of drivers, transportation departments are turning to user-based fees — or tolling systems — to finance necessary improvements.

Before deciding on a user-based fee model to meet transportation needs and establish sustainable funding, transportation departments should consider several factors. These could include what type of users the roadway serves, the infrastructure required to support a tolling system, public perception and engagement, long-term maintenance, and the investment needed to recover toll violations. These considerations require early communication with key project stakeholders. For any of these project types to be a success, transportation departments need to maintain effective communication with the public and manage public perception about the value of user-based fee roadways. Here are key details to keep in mind when considering the four main types of projects that can support a user-based fee model.

Cash to Electronic Tolling System

The traditional tolling system involves barriers on the roadway that require drivers to stop to pay a collector, insert payment or grab a ticket. The conversion from a cash exchange tolling system to a barrier-free, electronic system often results in reduced tolling costs in the long term. Electronic tollways save operations and maintenance costs, all while keeping traffic moving at the designated roadway speed. This type of tolling infrastructure also typically minimizes the pavement cross section over a traditional cash toll system. The transition to electronic tolling requires users of the roadway to obtain some sort of registration — whether it is a transponder in the vehicle or online registration that tracks a vehicle’s license plate while using the system.

While this conversion requires technological updates, the biggest change depends upon the user. Slow transitions from cash to fully electronic tolling systems are recommended, coupled with public engagement campaigns that inform drivers about the benefits of the new system as well as how they participate.

Non-Tolled System Retrofit Including a Managed Lane

This is a hybrid approach that offers a designed lane for drivers who are willing to pay a fee to access a lane with less traffic congestion. These managed lanes commonly restrict trucks or other vehicles that may slow down traffic, thus streamlining travel for passenger vehicles.

This hybrid model is often effective in regions where drivers are accustomed to tolling systems. These drivers often understand the benefits of paying user-based fees to access high-quality or more efficient roadways. Whether this approach is considered in a region with tolling systems or not, transportation departments should conduct surveys and engage with stakeholders prior to implementing a managed lane to see that the offerings meet the needs and wants of the consumer.

Full Tolling Conversion

The conversion from an existing non-tolled system to a full tolling system roadway is a significant transformation for both the transportation department and the roadway users. This model takes a road with no tolls and implements a tolling system for every user. It also requires backbone infrastructure such as power, data collection systems, cameras to monitor lanes and more. A full tolling system cannot simply be implemented just to increase revenue for transportation departments or agencies — such a drastic change must be tied to roadway improvements that bring value to the driver as well. The conversion of a non-tolled existing roadway to a user-based fee system requires special attention on how the original roadway construction was funded. Although not an insurmountable obstacle, it must be considered so there are justified benefits provided for the increased fees.

New Construction

When a new roadway is built to meet a region’s needs, there is ample opportunity to integrate tolling systems that utilize the latest technologies. Since new roadways are created to benefit users, a toll road is perceived to be logical, with tangible improvements made to traveling options. When new roadways with tolling systems are developed, the toll cost should plan to cover the cost of construction, plus ongoing operations and maintenance for the department or agency.

Any one of these four user-based roadway systems can offer a more sustainable stream of funding to transportation departments looking to make improvements to meet the needs of today — and tomorrow.


Transportation infrastructure serves as the backbone of growth and economic prosperity. It’s essential that transportation agencies are able to improve access and mobility while meeting demands to save time and money.

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Jason Wenberg is a regional operations manager for transportation and construction services. With a career spanning more than 20 years, he has extensive experience in construction project management and program management for roadway projects.