A New Transportation Bill Could Mean More Toll Roads. Is That a Good Thing?
A measure in a new federal transportation bill could allow states to pay for infrastructure upgrades by charging tolls on existing interstates. Trade groups were mixed on the proposal, with some suggesting a federal gas tax increase might be a better idea.
Could a few more toll roads be in the country’s future?
If a new transportation bill passes, quite possibly. The GROW AMERICA Act, a $302 billion infrastructure bill submitted by the U.S. Transportation Department to Congress this week, appears to be opening up a new funding path for construction jobs on highways: tolls on existing interstate freeways, which has been off-limits for decades.
But with the federal Highway Trust Fund anticipated to run out of cash in a few months, many states could be losing a key way to fund repairs to broken roads. The bill [PDF] hopes to ease this issue, partly by eliminating “the prohibition on tolling existing free Interstate highways, subject to the approval of the Secretary, for purposes of reconstruction, thus providing States greater flexibility to use tolling as a revenue source for needed reconstruction activities on all components of their highway systems.”
In explaining the reasoning for the addition, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said states have expressed interest in the change.
“We would never tell a state or a local project sponsor to toll,” he said, according to CBS News, “but that optionality is increasingly becoming something that states are interested in, and we’ll consider finding ways to help when that’s an option that states want to consider.”
The measure, the most talked about in the bill, drew a wide array of reactions, including:
One group’s strong support for tolling: The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), which represents toll booth operators nationwide, spoke unabashedly in favor of such tolling. “In releasing their proposal today, Secretary Foxx and the Administration recognize the importance of giving states the maximum amount of flexibility to use all appropriate funding and financing tools to meet their 21st century funding challenges,” IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones said in a statement. “We applaud the Administration for taking the bold step of proposing to lift the ban on interstate tolling.”
Gas taxes instead? IBTTA’s stance wasn’t universal, however, with trucking groups, automotive groups, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alike saying they’d rather the government increase the gas tax to pay for repairs and not rely on tolling. Among the biggest critics of additional tolls is the American Trucking Association. “Any proposal that moves away from a user fee funded transportation system is not going to be acceptable to the American trucking industry, period. Furthermore, we have real questions about the viability of the administration’s plan to use one-time proceeds from an unspecified and unlikely to pass corporate tax reform idea, along with inefficient highway tolling or private capital financing,” ATA CEO Bill Graves said. “The focus must be on real, long-term funding answers rather than repeatedly looking for the proverbial ‘nickels in the couch cushions.'”
And while not coming out specifically in opposition of tolls, the American Automotive Association (AAA) argued that increasing the federal gas tax “is the most effective and sustainable funding mechanism, provided the additional funds are thoughtfully spent on transportation improvements that ease congestion and increase safety.”
McClatchy national correspondent Curtis Tate notes that though industry groups appear more supportive of the gas tax, “the White House and Congress have shown little appetite for that.”