$305B highway bill adds new hurdle to tolling expansion

$305B highway bill adds new hurdle to tolling expansion
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The $305 billion highway bill that has been introduced by lawmakers in the House and Senate this week would make it harder for states to add tolls to U.S. highways. 

Supporters and opponents of tolling had been fighting over the continuation of a program that allows states to test out adding tolls to existing highways.

The compromise funding measure unveiled on Tuesday keeps that pilot program in place, providing a victory for tolling advocates. But the bill also adds a new requirement that states approve legislation before joining the program, creating a new hurdle for participation.

Opponents of tolling said they are glad the new highway bill will not allow additional states to be granted exemptions to the prohibition on adding fees to existing highways. 

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"We are pleased that the conference committee took into account its constituents’ vocal opposition to tolling existing interstates and did not expand the number of states eligible to impose new tolls under the Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program," the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates said in a statement. 

"ATFI commends the Senate for receding language from its DRIVE Act that would have made toll funds fungible and decreased public input on proposed tolling projects through the [pilot program]," the anti-tolling group continued. "The bill language regarding tolling draws heavily from the House’s [highway bill], favored by ATFI, and requires that states demonstrate authority to enact the pilot before a slot is granted." 

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. The states — Virginia, Missouri and North Carolina — have not moved forward with a tolling expansion, however. 

An earlier highway funding measure that was approved by the Senate 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. 

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

“While we review all 1,300 pages of the conference report, we are pleased that it contains important improvements to federal tolling programs," International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association President Executive Director Patrick Jones said in a statement.  

"We particularly want to express our strong support for Section 1411. Tolling; HOV Facilities; Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation," he continued. "This section would allow states to consider the use of tolls for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Interstate System in their respective states."

Jones said the highway bill that was unveiled this week by lawmakers took steps to streamline "the process for approval and implementation of state pilot programs so that states that are ready to move forward are able to do so," although they added new requirements for states to apply for the pilot tolling program over the objection of tolling supporters.  

"Providing this type of flexibility to three states is an important and modest step to enable states to meet the growing funding needs of the aging Interstate System," he said. 

Tolling foes also admitted the provisions of the $305 billion highway bill do not represent a total rejection of tolling by lawmakers. 

"Unfortunately, the FAST Act adds a three-year expiration period to the three tolling pilot program slots, with the possibility of a 1-year extension, and gives current applicants 1 year to complete their applications," the anti-tolling alliance said. "This will likely open the door to additional applications in the future.

The anti-tolling group said the pilot program at issue "is an outdated pilot program that should ultimately be repealed in its entirety. 

"ATFI will continue to oppose all efforts to toll existing Interstates under this program," the group said. 

Tolling advocates, meanwhile, applauded Congress for not slamming the door completely on increasing the use of tolling as gas tax revenue that is usually used to pay for transportation projects dries up. 

"Congress has taken an important step to provide the certainty needed to move forward on transportation improvements across the country,” the IBTTA's Jones said.

Jones added that Congress will eventually have to revisit the issue of paying for transportation projects, even though they are on the verge of approving a road funding package that last longer than two years for the first time since 2005. 

“While we urge Members of Congress to quickly pass this conference report, we remain concerned about the lack of any long-term, sustainable funding stream for transportation programs into the future," he said. "IBTTA and the tolling industry are ready to work with Congress, state officials and other stakeholders over the next few years to identify funding sources and other financing and funding tools that can serve as the basis for the next reauthorization bill.”

The House and Senate are expected to quickly approve the compromise highway funding legislation before a Friday deadline for renewing federal transportation spending. 

- This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on Dec. 3.