Congress pressured to allow more tolls

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Opponents of adding tolls to highways are pushing back against a call for Congress to relax federal prohibitions on charging drivers for travel.

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Tolling advocates have suggested that allowing states to place tolls on existing highways would help lawmakers pay for transportation projects that currently lack funding.

But the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) said Wednesday that adding tolls to highways that are now free would run counter to the original purpose of the interstate highway system. 

“Since its inception, the federal Interstate Highway System has facilitated unrestricted commerce and travel throughout the country,” ATFI member Jay Perron said in a statement to The Hill.

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“It is vital to the U.S. supply chain and has revolutionized the way America does business,” Perron continued. “Tolling existing interstates would reverse this progress, raising costs for travelers, businesses, and consumers, and harming the many businesses and communities located along interstate routes subject to new tolls.”

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) this week lobbied Congress to ease up on tolling restrictions in the next transportation funding bill while noting that tolls already generate "substantial" revenue. 

“In 35 states across the country, tolling makes a substantial contribution to the nation’s transportation system, generating more than $12 billion in annual toll revenues that support more than 5,300 miles of highways, bridges and tunnels,” IBTTA Executive Director Patrick Jones said in a statement.

“This infrastructure is vital to American mobility and economic growth. When Congress talks about considering all funding options, we want them to know that tolling is one of the most powerful, effective and proven tools in the toolbox.”

Federal law mostly prohibits states from adding tolls to existing highway lanes where drivers are already allowed to travel for free.

Congress has approved pilot programs for states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri to toll existing highways, however. Several other states have additionally been able to add new lanes to highways and place tolls on them.

The fight over tolling comes as Congress works on a renewal of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act, a road and transit funding bill that is scheduled to expire in September.

Federal transportation projects have traditionally been funded by money that is collected by the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax. But receipts from the tax have dipped due to increased fuel efficiency in vehicles and a general trend toward less driving.

The gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993, currently brings in about $34 billion per year, which falls short of the more than $50 billion in annual infrastructure spending that is included in the expiring transportation bill.

Leaders in both parties have suggested using revenue from closing tax loopholes to close the transportation funding shortfall, but tolling supporters of have raised the possibility of reversing the limits on tolls to raise the additional money.