The Transportation Department sent a meaty highway and transit proposal to Capitol Hill last week, signaling that the White House is heavily involved in the most basic details of drafting a new surface transportation bill. From my talks with congressional staff, the input is welcome. Everyone knows there is no time to waste. DOT's highway trust fund ticker projects that the gas-tax funded coffers will be depleted by Aug. 29.
Tucked into the bill (see Section 1405) is a provision that got a lot of attention among fans of public-private partnerships. The DOT, for the first time, is proposing to eliminate the current ban on tolling free federal highways. Foxx told reporters that he wanted to give states more options to finance their roads, bridges and transit.
This is a big win for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. (I fondly call them the "toll booth guys.") Tolling on federal highways now is permitted only when states add new lanes on to the existing highway system. Free-road enthusiasts like former House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., have long opposed allowing states to put tolls on the highway network that President Eisenhower intended to be a free resource for all Americans. But that was before the government ran out of money to pay for it.
"Now is the time to incorporate new and innovative ways to fund our nation's transportation needs," said IBTTA Executive Director Pat Jones. "We applaud the administration for taking the bold step of proposing to lift the ban on interstate tolling."
Not everyone agrees. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., issued a statement urging caution on any proposal to lift the tolling ban. He said attempts to toll Pennsylvania's I-80 under the administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell (D) were created "to perpetuate a culture of corruption at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission" rather than serve the public good. The federal government rejected Rendell's bid to allow tolling on I-80 in 2010.
Not every state will take the feds up on their offer. Heck, it's not even clear that Congress will do so. But now it's on the table. Because it represents real money, it may be hard to take it off.
For our insiders: Does the current ban on tolling for federal highways make sense? Are there other ways to change it that are less dramatic? If the tolling ban does get lifted, how would it change the interstate highway system? Is increased tolling an inevitable answer to depleted transportation coffers? Are there other creative options that, realistically, could make it into the next surface transportation bill?
(Note: This is a moderated blog on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.)
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