Congress Passes Short-Term Transportation Bill

How Congress struggled with the billâ??s tolling provisions

As Congress has struggled to find a transportation bill that can pass both houses, one hot topic has been tolling. Some on both sides of the political aisle in the House and Senate think the states should be able to use tolls to fund additions to or major overhauls of the Interstate system, subject to some rules to protect interstate commerce. And there are others think the states can’t be trusted and that no tolling should be allowed on the Interstates, regardless.

This debate was seen when the Senate recently voted on two amendments regarding tolling. The first would increase opportunities for tolling and the second was to ban all tolling on any roads that received federal funding. My colleague Reason Foundation Director of Transportation Policy Robert Poole explains the amendments:

“On Tuesday, March 13, the Senate will resume voting on a long list of amendments to S.1813, its surface transportation reauthorization bill. Two of them directly affect the future of interstate tolling in America. Number 25, by Sens. Carper, Kirk, and Warner (two Democrats and one Republican), would increase the number of slots in the Interstate Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Toll Pilot Program from three to ten. Amendment number 26, by Sen. Hutchison (R, TX) would further restrict tolling on Interstates by preventing the use of toll financing to reconstruct currently non-tolled lanes-and would also cut the number of slots in the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program from three to two. This measure is backed by the American Trucking Associations and all of its state affiliates, plus the AAA.”

Both amendments were withdrawn at the last moment as neither sponsor thought they had enough votes to pass them. This vote was ideal as decisions about whether or not to permit tolling is best left to the states.

Tolling is the way forward to meet the fiscal needs of many states that have large-scale, much needed modernization projects on their Interstates. For the most part, the Interstate is 50 years old which has caused its utility to decline. Meanwhile, receipts from gas taxes are falling as vehicles become more efficient, so an alternative needs to be found to enable effective replacement of these worn out roads. As Poole points out:

“This whole battle over Interstate tolling rests on a misconception by opponents that using tolls to finance major reconstruction and widening is “tolling existing lanes.” On the contrary, it is replacing existing lanes with state-of-the art lanes, with proper overhead clearance of 17.5 feet (compared with 15 feet on some of I-95 in North Carolina), applying current design and safety standards to the spacing of on and off-ramps, replacing less-safe left exits, reconstructing bottleneck interchanges (as in Rhode Island), and on and on. It also means replacing worn-out pavement-I-70 in Missouri is nearly 60 years old. The tolling opponents’ canard of “erecting toll booths on existing Interstate roads” is wrong for two reasons. First, it implies simply charging more to use the same worn-out, inadequate lanes (which is forbidden under the terms of the Pilot Program). Second, it calls to mind obsolete 20th-century toll booths, when what these innovative states are proposing is 21st-century all-electronic tolling.”

So now what is on the table?

The Senate transportation bill passed 74-22, a so-called bi-partisan bill. However, because it contains the extension of the federal gas tax beyond March 31, 2012 when it was originally slated to expire, the bill is being “held at the desk” awaiting a House bill. (All legislation containing revenues must originate in the House.) Many in the Senate suggested that the House should simply pass the Senate bill. However that did not happen because the House has other ideas, including a longer-term bill – one that might span 5 years. The 18-month Senate Bill is of no interest to the House and the House rejected it last week.

In a rush to get to its two week recess, the House and then the Senate passed a “clean” 90-day extension to the transportation bill. This means that the can was just kicked down the road for another 90-days with no real policy changes implemented.

Shirley Ybarra is a senior transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation.