Policy

Trump Wants More Interstate Tolling, But Lawmakers Skeptical

Plan would give states more options

The Trump administration suggested in a fact sheet last week the idea of reducing restrictions on tolling on interstate highways. Pictured: I-278 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images File Photo)

President Donald Trump fleshed out his proposal last week to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure by listing tolling on interstate highways as one way to raise funds, but his idea is encountering reluctance in Congress.

Several key lawmakers said they were receptive to the idea, but cited obstacles to moving forward.

“Everything’s on the table: Gas tax, tolling,” said Rep. Sam Graves, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. “I’m not a big fan of tolling — I don’t like paying for a road twice, but that’s my opinion.”

The Missouri Republican told reporters Thursday that lawmakers were considering even politically tricky sources of money, including raising fuel taxes. 

The administration raised the tolling option in a fact sheet released Tuesday, the same day as the fiscal 2018 budget request. The fact sheet lists several infrastructure proposals that were part of the budget request, but the tolling idea was listed separately. 

“Tolling is generally restricted on interstate highways,” the fact sheet said. “We should reduce this restriction and allow the states to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.”

Tolling not only could raise money to pay for maintenance of the highway, but it would also provide a revenue stream that would make the highway more attractive to private investors. Trump has said the private sector can deliver most of the $1 trillion in spending over 10 years. The budget requests a federal contribution of $200 billion over 10 years.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, said tolling could be one way to help relieve the burden on federal spending.

“I’m open to anything that’ll help us get through these problems,” the Utah Republican said. “We’re way overspending. We’ve got to find some way of evening this up. I’d be open to just about anything.”

Slow enactment

The law that created the interstate system in 1956 only allowed the handful of states that had already permitted tolling on their highways to toll their portions of the system. Congress has loosened some of those provisions over time, including in the 2015 surface transportation law that allowed North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia to enact pilot programs to toll their interstates.

None of the three has moved forward on such a plan, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, the ranking member on the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, pointed out in an interview.

“No state has implemented it,” the Oregon Democrat said. “Three states signed up and no state’s done it because people hate it.”

DeFazio opposes more tolling, saying increased spending on highways should come from increasing taxes on gas and diesel, which haven’t been raised since 1993.

“The American people have already paid for the interstate system through their gas taxes, and they’re continuing to pay for its upkeep through gas and diesel taxes,” DeFazio said. “I assume they want it be tolled and run by private vendors so there can [be] private profit on a public resource, which is our free interstate system. That’s not a good reason.”

Gas taxes collected at the pump are sent into the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the federal share of highway and transit programs throughout the country. Revenue in recent years has been insufficient to cover spending, leaving the trust fund in need of infusions from the general fund.

‘Short-sighted’

Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and a member of Senate Finance, criticized the budget for not addressing the Highway Trust Fund’s “looming insolvency.”

“This is short-sighted and not sustainable, and it fails to ensure the fund’s long-term certainty, which is critical for transportation investments,” Carper said.

Lawmakers from both parties agreed that making the trust fund sustainable over the long term is important, and that tolls may not be useful for that. Especially in rural areas, tolls might be inadequate because the volume of traffic doesn’t create enough revenue to pay for basic upkeep. Republican senators from rural states have for months been saying that affects their thinking on infrastructure legislation.

“It’s an option to put on the table, but it doesn’t work in every state and I doubt if it would work in mine,” Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer said of increased tolling. “And … it doesn’t address the overall problem that we’re looking at, which is finding a sustainable revenue source.”

Patrick D. Jones, the head of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, acknowledged that the concept may not be useful for every road, but he applauded the budget’s provision for taking a step in the right direction.

“Combined with the President’s proposed investment in infrastructure, tolling can provide valuable resources to the states to tackle transportation infrastructure projects,” Jones said in a statement.

The trucking industry opposes tolls, and came out against the language in the budget. Like DeFazio, Bill Sullivan, American Trucking Associations’ executive vice president for advocacy, pointed out that the states allowed to start tolling interstates in the highway bill hadn’t acted.

“While ATA is encouraged by the apparent focus on infrastructure investment in this budget, an investment we strongly support and look forward to helping the administration and Congress shape, we are deeply concerned by the proposal to loosen the restrictions on interstate tolling,” Sullivan said.

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