“The money has to come from somewhere.”

That bit of financial common sense comes from Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) Government Relations Manager Tony Harris in regard to paying for the proposed Interstate-10 bridge between Mobile and Baldwin County. The project comes with a price tag of about $2 billion and it is considered a major investment; and one that can be funded in many different ways.

ALDOT has already committed a significant amount to the project with $250 million. And while it might seem easy to tap funds from the new infrastructure bill that will send resources to Alabama, only 17% of that is “new money” as it represents a continuation of previous federal funding.

Generally, many projects have been funded with bond issues, in which investors purchase interest-bearing bonds; basically, loaning the state or municipality money which will be eventually paid off. When this is done with revenue from tolls, the theory is that once the bonds are paid off, the tolls will disappear.

History tells us something very different.

Very often government can get hooked on toll revenue, and simply keep tolls in place. Case in point, the George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey. Completed in 1931 at a cost of $60 million, it has been long paid off but currently carries a whopping $16 toll. Tolls from that bridge now generate about $800 million per year. So you can see why legislators might not want to give up such a large sum.

But there is an interesting case in which tolls were removed… that actually backfired in the minds of residents.

The Connecticut Turnpike, built in 1956, is part of Interstate 95, one of the busiest roads in America. Toll booths were spaced out about 15-20 miles apart, and motorists paid a quarter at each site. After a horrific accident at a toll booth in 1983, talks about removing the tolls intensified. By 1985, the toll booths were gone. The state recouped the revenue through higher gas taxes.

However, there were unintended consequences.

Drivers who were used to paying tolls suddenly realized that I-95 through Connecticut was one of the few free highways in the Northeast. Immediately traffic skyrocketed, turning what had been a relatively normal highway into a parking lot. This also caused more wear and tear on the road, which cost more to maintain. Local residents grew so angry over the traffic that a grassroots organization called “Save Our Tolls” actually campaigned to have the toll booths re-built.

That never happened and today I-95 in Connecticut is still an incredibly congested highway. It remains the only state on the east coast without tolls.

Which brings us to the I-10 bridge and a proposed toll of about $2.50.

Would legislators really remove the tolls when the bridge is paid off?

And if that happened, would the new bridge suddenly see a tremendous increase in traffic?

If tolls are implemented, such a decision is far in the future. But it does pay to look at history when it comes to the effects of removing tolls.

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