Obama embrace of tolling garners mixed reaction

Getty Images

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) cheered President Obama for including an expansion of tolling in the $302 billion transportation bill that he sent to Congress on Tuesday. 

Obama included language that would lift a current ban on states placing tolls on existing highway lanes in his draft of the proposed infrastructure funding legislation, which was dubbed the Grow America Act. 

The legislation would allow states to apply to the Department of Transportation (DOT) for approval to install additional tolls on existing roads. Present law requires states to construct new lanes on highways that they want to add to tolls to. 

IBTTA Executive Director Patrick Jones said the concession on adding tolls to existing roads was long overdue as lawmakers are searching for funding sources for new transportation projects. 

“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 21stcentury funding challenges,” Jones said in a statement.  “We applaud the Administration for taking the bold step of proposing to lift the ban on interstate tolling.”

The Obama administration did not specify a specific amount of funding that it thought could be drawn from tolling. The proposal that was released on Wednesday focused mostly on using $150 billion from corporate tax reform and approximately $34 billion that is generated by the federal gas tax to pay for the president’s transportation bill. 

Jones said it was a big deal that the tolling expansion was even been considered, however. 

“Now is the time to incorporate new and innovative ways to fund our nation’s transportation needs,” he said. “Currently, 35 states have leveraged the power of tolling as a proven and effective option to meet their infrastructure needs.  Today’s administration proposal opens the door for state governments to take advantage of all the tools in the toolbox to meet their local transportation funding needs.”

Obama’s proposal would extend federal road and transit funding that is scheduled to expire in September for the next four years.

The plan would authorize four years of transportation spending at $75.5 billion annually, which would be a $20 billion increase over current yearly funding levels. It would also close the $66 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

Despite the movement toward increased reliance on tolls, the president is mostly proposing to pay for the spending by generating some $150 billion in revenue from corporate tax reform — something Congress is unlikely to consider.

Jones said he hoped Obama’s proposal would clear the way for lawmakers turning toward tolling as a source for increasing transportation revenue. 

“Tolling is a proven and effective tool to fund and finance more than 5,000 miles of roads, bridges and tunnels in 35 states,” he said. “To ensure our roads and bridges remain safe and reliable requires a variety of solutions.All options should be on the table so that states can choose the funding methods that work best for them.” 

Obama's embrace of expanding tolling was not greeted with enthusiam everywhere in Washington on Tuesday, however. 

The anti-tolling Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) came out quickly in opposition to Obama’s proposed to expand the use of tolls in the next transportation bill. 

“Tolling has proven to be an inefficient mechanism for collecting transportation revenue, consuming up to 20 percent of revenue generated and those paying the toll may not even see that road improved because the president’s plan would allow toll revenue to go to other projects in the state,” ATFI spokesman Miles Morin said in a statement. 

“The option for states to place tolls on existing interstate capacity has existed for 23 years and not a single state has used tolls in this way – not just because the idea is unpopular, but because it’s bad policy," Morin continued. "Tolling existing interstates is inefficient, causes traffic diversion and increases supply chain costs that hurt businesses and consumers. Transportation infrastructure needs improvements, but of all the ways to fund them, tolling existing interstates is the worst.”

-This story was updated with new information at 4:45 p.m.