Trump, Congress head for fight over tolls

Trump, Congress head for fight over tolls
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The White House and Congress are headed for a fight over President Trump’s desire to build new tollways on U.S. highways.

The administration is drafting plans to lift current tolling restrictions on interstate highways as part of an effort to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

But the contentious idea will be a tough sell in Congress, where lawmakers have generally been reluctant to broach the unpopular subject.

“I’m not a big fan of tolling. I don’t like paying for a road twice,” Rep. Sam GravesSam GravesGOP signals infrastructure bill must wait House Republicans work to torpedo Trump’s air traffic control plan White House works to sell House Republicans on Trump’s air traffic control plan MORE (R-Mo.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's highways and transit subcommittee, told reporters Thursday.

At the same time, Graves said: “Everything’s on the table.”

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The administration laid out Trump’s vision for a $1 trillion infrastructure package in his budget proposal this week, offering the first real glimpse of the highly anticipated plan.

Trump’s idea for revitalizing U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works relies heavily on private companies instead of the federal government to back transportation projects, which he says would speed up project delivery and bring down costs.

A six-page fact sheet on the infrastructure plan says Trump will pursue a proposal to lift a federal ban that prevents tolling on existing lanes of interstate highways.

The infrastructure outline also calls for allowing private companies to construct, operate and maintain interstate rest areas.

“Tolling is generally restricted on interstate highways. This restriction prevents public and private investment in such facilities,” the White House fact sheet says. “We should reduce this restriction and allow the states to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.”

When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, states were prohibited from tolling the interstates, with the exception of states that already had tolls in place.

But lawmakers have slowly chipped away at the ban. Tolling is now allowed to add new capacity to an interstate highway or to reconstruct a bridge. 

Congress also created a pilot program in a 1998 highway bill that allows three states to explore tolling on their interstates, though none of them have yet utilized the program.

Trump's tolling proposal would need to win approval from both the tax-writing panels and the transportation authorizing committees before being brought to the floor.

“This is an issue that has been talked about for quite a while,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said on a press call this week.

Cash-strapped cities and states have long struggled to raise revenue for transportation projects.

Proponents of tolling say it gives states more flexibility to pay for local transportation projects and would encourage more private sector involvement — two core principles in Trump’s infrastructure initiative.

Supporters also argue that it makes sense to charge motorists directly for the roads they use, as opposed to charging people at the pump with a gas tax increase to pay for deteriorating roads.

“We applaud President Trump’s support and call on Congress to immediately join with the President to reduce burdensome regulations that prevent state and local governments from utilizing all available funding mechanisms,” said Patrick D. Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA). 

“Toll financing may not be the answer for every highway, bridge, or tunnel project in the country, but the power of tolling is proven and effective. Combined with the president’s proposed investment in infrastructure, tolling can provide valuable resources to the states to tackle transportation infrastructure projects.”

There are currently over 5,900 miles of toll roads throughout the U.S., generating over $13 billion in annual revenues to help make infrastructure improvements, according to IBTTA.

But there has been far less enthusiasm for erecting toll roads on existing interstate highways.

Critics point to the fact that the three states with the authority to toll their interstates have not done so, and two of them — Virginia and North Carolina — even gave up their slots in the pilot program.

Lawmakers worry it could be politically unpopular to ask drivers to pay for roads they have been using for free, especially when they already pay for transportation projects with the gas tax, though it hasn’t been increased at the federal level in over 20 years.

“It’s very difficult, because people don’t like it,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Hill. “If Republicans want to hand us the House, I urge them to adopt these policies.”

Other skeptics, including the trucking industry, argue that tolling could create a new slew of problems, such as more traffic on local roads.

“Tolls also hurt businesses, communities and economies where they are located,” said Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates.

“Studies have shown tolls divert traffic onto secondary roads. Local municipalities are then stuck with expedited maintenance costs and new public safety concerns such as higher accident rates on local roads and first responders delayed by toll-driven congestion.”

There was already growing concern among Democrats and rural Republicans that the private-sector model favored by Trump would neglect some critical infrastructure needs.

Public-private partnerships allow private firms to bid on transportation projects, build and maintain the project for a set amount of time, and recover costs.

But private firms would only be attracted to projects that can recoup their investment costs through some sort of revenue stream, such as tolls or user fees.

Trump’s tolling proposal could further add fuel to critics’ claim that the White House infrastructure initiative will amount to a “corporate giveaway” for wealthy private investors.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), in a warning about the impacts of Trump’s plan, introduced an alternative infrastructure proposal this week that would pour federal money directly into transportation projects.

“In reality, President Trump and Congressional Republicans are pushing a trillion-dollar corporate giveaway that would create tax incentives for Wall Street to privatize our roads, bridges, sanitation systems, and utilities, while raising tolls, fees, and bills—all through taxpayer subsidies,” the CPC outline says.