Senate highway bill would ease tolling restrictions

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The $275 billion highway bill that was advanced by a Senate committee on Wednesday would make it easier for states to add tolls to U.S. highways. 

Lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a way to pay for transportation spending, and the proposed legislation includes a provision that would allow states to apply more easily 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 tolls to unless they are granted an exemption, but the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) said Wednesday that it is time to make it easier to add tolls with federal transportation funding drying up.   

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“With limited federal revenues available to support our nation’s infrastructure, it only makes sense to give states the ability to choose the best way to pay for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the vital Interstate System within their borders," Jones said in a statement. 

"This flexibility, offered to a small number of states, provides a potential pathway to address the high-costs associated with Interstate System reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in some States — projects that might otherwise languish for lack of adequate funding,” he continued. 

The measure, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, calls for appropriating nearly $43 billion per year to the federal government's highway program. 

The spending is contingent upon lawmakers coming up with a way to pay for it, but lawmakers included a provision that would expand the Federal Highway Administration's Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP) to make it easier for states to ask for permission to toll their roads. 

The pilot program was established by a 1998 transportation funding bill that was approved by Congress, but participation has thus far been limited to Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri.

The transportation bill that was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday would not expand the number of states that can participate in the pilot, but it would make it easier for states to join the program if the test states decide not to go forward with a tolling expansion. 

Opponents of expanding tolling in the U.S. said Wednesday that lawmakers should be moving to get rid of the pilot program, not expand it. 

"This pilot program has provided 17 years' worth of evidence that tolling existing interstates is unviable, as no state has succeeded in levying tolls even after multiple attempts. The ISRRPP should be repealed, not expanded," the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) said in a statement. 

"The DRIVE Act bill lowers the bar for approval of pilot programs and makes it more difficult for the public to challenge pilot program approvals," the anti-tolling group continued. "Given the significant implications of tolling an existing interstate for safety, jobs, and economic development, among other things, approval requirements should not be weakened, nor should the public be prevented from having a say in the outcome."