Plan to allow states to toll interstates; Thompson urges caution

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 30, 2014 

— The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday asked Congress to end the prohibition on tolling existing interstate highways as a way of paying for their reconstruction, marking a major shift away from how the system has been funded for decades.

The proposal is part of President Barack Obama’s $302 billion infrastructure bill aimed at addressing a looming shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund. States are currently able to toll interstates only to add lanes, but many simply don’t have the funds they need to widen or rebuild the oldest sections of interstate, and nor does the federal government.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday that the federal Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of cash in August, a scenario that would hurt most states.

Longtime advocates of expanded tolling lauded the proposal. Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, noted that 35 states had used tolling as a “proven and effective option” for infrastructure improvements.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, urged caution.

“Any attempt to remove the prohibitions on tolling interstate highways must be highly scrutinized. Under the (Gov. Ed) Rendell administration, the scheme to toll Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania was a prime example of a betrayal of public trust, where tolling revenues from the interstate would have been diverted to finance unassociated projects.

“Tolling can work for new capacity or to mitigate congestion by providing alternative lanes of travel, but it must be done in a transparent manner. Pennsylvania’s plan was not crafted for the public good, but to perpetuate a culture of corruption at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Since, several of their high level officials have been indicted and convicted on a series of charges. We can’t forget recent history when it comes to this proposal,” Thompson said.

The trucking industry and motorist groups renewed their opposition Tuesday. Toll opponents argue that payment collection systems are inefficient, that they raise costs for businesses and consumers, and that they divert traffic to local roads that were never designed for large volumes of traffic.

The trucking industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support increasing federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, though the White House and Congress have shown little appetite for that.

The country’s 47,000 miles of interstate highway have largely been free of tolls since the system’s creation in 1956. Its construction and maintenance was funded through a per-gallon tax on gasoline. The tax was increased only three times in its history, most recently in 1993.

The 18.4 cent tax on gasoline and the 24.4 cent tax on diesel fuel were not indexed to inflation, and construction costs have soared. But taxpayers are paying for it anyway. Since 2008, Congress has had to transfer more than $50 billion into the Highway Trust Fund from general revenues to keep the fund solvent.

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