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An Old Idea: Tolling Federal Highways An Old Idea: Tolling Federal Highways

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An Old Idea: Tolling Federal Highways

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Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have teamed up to advocate for infrastructure investment. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Lawmakers are scrambling to figure out how to fill, at a minimum, a $19 billion gap in transportation funding for next year, and that's just to keep the current system limping along. A bigger crisis is looming.

Transportation lobbyists of all stripes are training their political muscle on Congress, urging lawmakers to find a way to keep the highway trust fund from depleting. If they do nothing, that could happen as early as August. President Obama has proposed $302 billion for surface transportation over four years. A stripped-down two-year plan would be in the $70 billion range, but Republicans and Democrats all want more than that.

 

The only question is how to pay for it. Gas tax? Repatriation? Customs fees?

"Everything is on the table," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "We do have a crisis. State DOTs already are slowing projects."

Maybe now would be a good time to revisit an option that has been rejected by lawmakers in the past—allowing to tolling on federal highways. Under current law, tolling on interstate highways is prohibited unless the highway itself is new or there are new lanes being added to it, in which case only the new lanes can be tolled. Here's a good review of the issue from the Congressional Research Service. It's also worth noting that I have broached this topic before. This is an old debate.

 

I'm bringing it up again because former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell made an impassioned plea to allow tolling on federal highways at a conference last week sponsored by his organization, Building America's Future, along with the Progressive Policy Institute and the National League of Cities.

"The argument against tolling on federal highways has been, 'We paid for it once.' OK, we paid for it once. …It's like buying the $45,000 car of your dreams and for the next four or five years not putting a penny into it. It's silly," Rendell said.

I confess I didn't expect a Democrat who is not afraid to tout the benefits of President Obama's 2009 stimulus (he says it's "a dirty word in Washington") to speak so passionately about tolling. That's typically a Republican priority. As it turns out, Rendell has been in favor of expanding tolling opportunities for some time. He mentioned it in testimony to the House Transportation Committee over a year ago.

Last week, Rendell said the private sector is hampered in a number of ways from investing in infrastructure. One barrier is the ban on federal highway tolling. Another is the current cap on private activity bonds issued by local or state governments to finance projects through private investors. (More on that in a blog post from last year.)

 

Eventually, this country will have to put a sizable investment into upgrading its crumbling highway system and creating alternate modes of transportation. For Rendell, tolling on highways is a more fair way to distribute the costs because it impacts only the drivers who use the highway network. "The little old lady who doesn't have a car—she doesn't pay a dime," he said.

For anyone worried that lifting the ban on tolls would mean the end of the all free interstates, Rendell eased that concern by noting that tolling is only a viable option for a small portion of the country's highways. "The private sector will only invest in infrastructure where it can have a return on investment," he said.

That's less than 10 percent of the federal highway system.

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For our insiders: What are the technical and political and barriers to lifting the ban on federal highway tolls? Is there any appetite among policymakers to do so? What are the options? How would federal highway tolls change the national transportation network? Is the old adage that the interstate highway system should be free still alive and well? Or is it time for a new maxim?

(Note: This is a moderated blog on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you want to become a regular commenter, contact me.)

Don't Miss Today's Top Stories

Chock full of usable information on today's issues."

Michael, Executive Director

Concise coverage of everything I wish I had hours to read about."

Chuck, Graduate Student

The day's action in one quick read."

Stacy, Director of Communications

Great way to keep up with Washington"

Ray, Professor of Economics

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