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Advocates tout 2015 tolling increase

Advocates tout 2015 tolling increase
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Tolling advocates are touting an 14 percent increase in the number of trips that U.S. residents have taken on toll roads this year as they suggest tolls as a potential solution to a federal transportation funding shortfall that has bedeviled lawmakers for years. 

The International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association said Tuesday that 5.7 billion trips have been taken by drivers on toll roads so far this year, which is an increase of 5 billion trips that were taken in the same period last year. 

The group said there has also been a nine percent increase in the number of miles that are on U.S. roads that are tolled in recent years, going from 5,431 in 2011 to 5,932 in 2013. 

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IBTTA Executive Director Patrick Jones said the growth in the both the use and presence of toll roads shows their is an appetite in the nation for more tolling as federal transportation funding dries up. 

“Our report shows drivers and policymakers alike are continuing to see the benefits of toll roads now located in 34 states throughout the country,” Jones said in a statement. “Throughout this summer’s driving season, more reliable trip times and overall improved mobility provided by well-maintained and well-designed toll roads are providing drivers the premium benefits they seek.” 

The report comes as lawmakers in Washington are facing a July 31 deadline for the expiration of federal transportation funding. Congress has been struggling to come up with a way to pay for an extension, and tolling advocates have suggested expanding the use of tolls to allow states to generate more money for highways on their own.  

Present law requires states to construct new lanes on highways that they want to add tolls to unless they are granted an exemption. 

A $275 billion transportation bill that has been proposed in the Senate would allow states to apply more easily to the Department of Transportation (DOT) for approval to install additional tolls on existing roads.

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 last week 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 they questioned the IBTTA's findings. 

"IBTTA’s press release would have been more accurate if it read: ‘Proliferation of toll roads and low gas prices inflate count of toll road trips in America,’" the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates said in a statement that was provided to The Hill. 

"A nine percent increase in toll roads accounts for two-thirds of the 14 percent increase in toll road trips they have observed, and low gas prices leading to more miles driven could easily account for the rest," the anti-tolling group continued. "The idea that the American people are joyfully paying hand over fist for the thrill of driving on toll roads is laughable." 

The opposition group disputed the noting that tolling is a potential solution to the nation's transportation problems. 

"Electronic tolling is held up as a funding panacea, but it is proven to waste 20 percent or more of collected revenues on collection and bureaucratic costs, not to mention padding the pockets of tolling companies," the ATFI said. "Compare that to 1 percent administrative costs for the fuel tax or 0.5 percent for the income tax. Additionally, tolling is proven to divert traffic onto secondary roads and cause increased accident rates on those roads – it displaces and increases accidents, it doesn’t reduce them.

"A new toll road that people can choose not to use is one thing; eliminating drivers’ choices by tolling an existing interstate is another, and will always be unacceptable," the statement concluded. 

This story was updated with new information at 12:42 p.m.