Anti-tolling group applauds Senate for shunning expansion

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Opponents of adding tolls to existing highways are praising Senate leaders for rejecting a call from President Obama to expand the use of tolling as a means of helping to pay for transportation projects.

Senate leaders unveiled a $265 billion transportation bill this week, but the measure excludes language that had been recommended by Obama that would allow states to apply for the right to add tolls to highways that are currently free to drive on.

Tolling advocates had declared victory last month when Obama's proposed version of the legislation included language that would lift a current ban on states placing tolls on existing highway lanes.

The Senate's bill only calls for the Department of Transportation to study alternative revenue sources for transportation projects, which could end up including tolling.

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The Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) said Wednesday that the Senate was wise to stop short of Obama on the proposal to expanding the number of tolls on U.S. roads.

"Tolling existing interstates is a poor choice to generate transportation revenue for a number of reasons, including inefficiency, which plagues even electronic toll collection, consuming up to 20% of collected revenue with collection and bureaucratic costs,” ATFI spokesman Miles Morin said in a statement.

“There are proven privacy concerns with mandatory electronic tolling, and interstate tolls can make commuting to work or traveling too expensive for some Americans, restricting their employment options and ability to move throughout the country,” Morin continued.

Present law requires most states to construct new lanes on highways if they want to add tolls, with the exception of pilot programs in states including Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri.

The Washington, D.C.-based International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) argues that tolling could be a reliable funding source for transportation projects that maintains the current system where drivers pay for the upkeep of the roads they are using.

"Tolling is a proven and effective tool to fund and finance more than 5,000 miles of roads, bridges and tunnels in 35 states,” IBTTA Executive Director Patrick Jones said earlier this month when Obama released his transportation proposal.

“To ensure our roads and bridges remain safe and reliable requires a variety of solutions," Jones continued. "All options should be on the table so that states can choose the funding methods that work best for them.”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said the coverage of Obama's apparent embrace of increased tolling has been overblown.

"There’s been a lot of interest in the toll issue, but it’s actually not how we pay for our bill," Foxx said during an appearance in the White House press briefing this week.

"The way we pay for our bill is the way I said we pay for it, which is pro-growth business tax reform," Foxx said.

"The tolling piece, which is a smaller piece of our bill, but what it basically does is it enables a given governor — if they decide they want to pursue tolling — to apply to the federal government and to have a decision made based on whether they’re using that toll revenue to improve the facility that they’re using or to relieve congestion," Foxx continued. "And then at that point, if it’s acceptable at USDOT, they would have more capability to do it. But it’s not a free-for-all and it’s not a way we pay for our bill."

The anti-tolling ATFI accused Foxx on Wednesday of "backpedaling" on the administration's proposal to expand the use of tolling.

"The bill language is clear and expansive, and allows states and tolling authorities to divert toll revenues to a host of public transit and other unspecified projects," the group said in a news release. "Tolling existing interstates is a road funding gimmick that has been discredited through a failed 15-year pilot program that resulted in millions of dollars of waste, intense public opposition, and no successful interstates tolling projects. This bad idea should not be expanded nationwide."

The debate over tolling comes as lawmakers are trying to fill a gap in the Department of Transportation's Highway Trust Fund that has been projected to reach $20 billion as soon as next year.

The independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that the trust fund that is used to pay for road and transit projects will run out of money as early as August if Congress does not approve a new round of funding.

The traditional source for transportation funding has been revenues that are collected from the federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents-per-gallon. The gas tax has been increased since 1993 however, and receipts are now being outpaced by infrastructure expenses by about $16 billion per year.

The gas tax brings in approximately $34 billion per year, but the current transportation bill includes more than $50 billion in road and transit spending. Transportation advocates have said the current funding level is the bare minimum that can be spend on federal infrastructure projects to maintain the nation's infrastructure.

The CBO has projected that lawmakers will have to find an extra $100 billion in addition to the money that is expected to be collected from the gas tax to approve a new six-year transportation bill this year.

Transportation advocates have pushed for a bill that lasts at least that long because lawmakers approved only a two-year measure in 2012 that is expiring in the fall.

The Senate said this week that its $265 billion transportation bill would last six years, but the upper chamber has not revealed how it intends to pay for its new round of infrastructure spending.

Obama has suggested that lawmakers approve a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill to allow for a higher annual funding level. Obama has suggested that lawmakers use $150 billion from a corporate tax reform proposal that is considered unlikely to become law to defray costs of the new transportation bill in addition to relaxing the rules on tolling for states.

The House has not yet released its version of the transportation bill.