House highway bill limits tolling expansion

House highway bill limits tolling expansion
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The $325 billion highway bill that has been introduced in the House would make it harder for states to add tolls to U.S. highways. 

Tolling supporters have pushed for an expansion as lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a way to pay for a multiyear transportation bill, but the measure unveiled by the Republican-led House would require states to approve legislation before participating in a federal pilot program.

Present law requires states to construct new lanes on highways that they want to add tolls to unless they are granted an exemption, which has thus far been limited to three states. 

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The states - Virginia, Missouri and North Carolina - have not moved forward with a tolling expansion, however, and tolling foes said they are glad the House measure would not allow additional states to be granted exemptions to the prohibition on adding fees to existing highways. 

"While ATFI urges the committee to eliminate the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP) entirely, we commend you for taking into account your constituents’ vocal opposition to tolling existing interstates," the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates (ATFI) said in a letter to members of the House Transportation Committee. 

"Specifically, we are pleased to see that the proposed legislation does not expand the number of pilot program slots, nor does it allow funds collected through tolls to be diverted to other purposes," the anti-tolling group's letter continued. "This stands in contrast to the Senate’s DRIVE Act, put forward in July, which includes language that would allow funds collected by tolling an interstate under the ISRRPP to be spent on completely unrelated projects. Because tolls are generally upheld as a ‘user fee’ for the roads traveled, diverting these funds away from infrastructure improvements is a violation of public trust." 

The earlier Senate highway funding measure, known as the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act, included a provision that would expand the Federal Highway Administration's Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program 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 the three states that have not moved forward with a tolling expansion. 

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

Tolling advocates have said Congress should make it easier for states to add tolls as federal transportation funding has dried up. 

"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," International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) President Executive Director Patrick Jones said in a statement when the Senate highway bill was introduced in July. 

"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,” Jones continued then. 

Tolling foes said Wednesday that lawmakers should be moving to get rid of the pilot program, not expand it. 

"The ISRRPP has provided 17 years’ worth of evidence that tolling existing interstates is not a viable transportation funding method," the anti-tolling group wrote. "We are hopeful that it will not take many more years for Congress to end this experiment and remove this distraction from the funding conversation."