Poll: 79 percent supports tolling to pay for highways

Poll: 79 percent supports tolling to pay for highways
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Seventy-nine percent of U.S. residents would support increasing the use of tolls on the nation's roads to help for new transportation projects, according to a poll Thursday by an infrastructure group.

The survey, which was conducted by HNTB Corp., found 79 percent of U.S. residents "would support the addition of a toll on a non-tolled surface transportation facility if it resulted in a safer, congestion-free and more reliable trip."

The poll found 83 percent of its respondents would also support tolls on highways that are currently free, which has been a source of contentious debate in Washington.

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HNTB Toll Services Chairman Jim Ely said the finding bolstered the argument of tolling advocates that federal rules limiting them to new highway lanes should be revisited in the next transportation funding debate.

"Tolling is becoming the solution of choice for generating additional user-based transportation revenue,” Ely said in a statement. “It’s a proven source of funding that’s being seriously considered for expanded use by cities, states and even the federal government with support from elected officials across the political spectrum.”

Tolling groups pushed for an expansion, when Congress, over the summer, was debating a nearly $11 billion bill to extend federal transportation funding until May 2015.

Advocates argued that tolls could been used to help pay for a longer transportation spending measure by helping to close a shortfall in federal infrastructure funding that is estimated to be as high as $16 billion per year.

However, the anti-tolling Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) disputed the support for expanding tolling in the U.S. was as high as the HNTB poll found, pointing to other surveys that have painted a more muddled picture of public opinion on the topic. 

"It is not surprising that the results of a poll commissioned by a road building outfit that bills itself as a top 'consultant to toll authorities' would produce pro-tolling results," the anti-tolling group said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

"Interestingly, another recent Rasmussen Reports poll contradicts those findings," the ATFI statement continued. "That survey concluded two-thirds of Americans oppose a White House plan to toll existing interstates. Serious discussions about the complex and technical issues involved with transportation funding are more helpful in honestly informing Americans than simple polls."

Tolling groups in D.C. cheered when President Obama included language that would lift the current ban on states placing tolls on existing highway lanes in his proposal for a four-year, $302 billion bill that was dubbed the Grow America Act.

Obama’s proposal would allow states to apply to the Department of Transportation for approval to install additional tolls on existing roads. Present law requires states to construct new lanes on highways that they want to toll, with the exception of pilot programs in states including Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri.

The anti-tolling group said there has been opposition in those states to expanding their use to existing highways. 

"The incontrovertible facts are that citizens and lawmakers in Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri have balked at the prospect of putting tolls on existing interstate lanes," the ATFI said. "Those real world responses provide more valuable insight into the public’s rejection of tolls than any poll."

Lawmakers meanwhile largely ignored Obama's transportation funding proposal, and they did not address the tolling provision in their temporary stopgap.

HNTB's Ely said the poll findings that were released on Thursday showed the tolling proposal should be revisited when the transportation funding comes up for a renewal again next year.

"Inflation, improved fuel economy, changing driving habits and rising construction costs have eaten away at the purchasing power of federal and state gas taxes,” he said. “The national survey suggests that many Americans agree that when it comes to fixing our Interstate system, improving trip reliability and reducing accidents, all funding sources, including tolls, should be on the table for consideration by America’s transportation leaders and policy makers.”

-This story was updated with new information at 6:04 p.m.