State Transpo Officials Push to Toll for Maintenance, Not Just Capacity

Last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told state DOT officials gathered at an AASHTO conference in Washington that he was all in favor of tolling – but only to add new capacity.

Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson says her state should be putting all of its funds toward stewardship. Photo: Iowa DOT

“We believe in tolling,” LaHood said. “You can raise a lot of money with tolls. If a state comes to us with good plans for tolling, yes, we’ll be responsive to that… as long as you’re building more capacity. That’s really what we’re going to look at.”

As state transportation officials struggle with state of good repair, they are beginning to chafe at the federal restriction that allows tolling only for new capacity – not maintenance or other needs.

“The argument always is, we shouldn’t toll for reconstruction because we’ve already paid for them once,” said Iowa DOT Director Nancy Richardson in an interview with Streetsblog. “But we’ve paid for them and we’ve used that value. Now it’s time to reinvest.”

She says maintenance, or “stewardship”, is a much higher priority for her state than capacity — to the point where she considers spending all of her funds on stewardship.

We probably have about 75 percent of our money going to that now. But our system has taken such a beating in the last five years because the weather has been so dramatic – both winters and flooding – so we’ve seen accelerated deterioration and costs over the past five or six years, without revenues going up significantly. Our bang for the buck is less. So we have to look, like all states, to see if we have to almost completely shift our funds to maintenance, or stewardship, as we call it, rather than capacity.

Secretary LaHood admitted, when asked, that the Federal Highway Administration had rejected tolls for Pennsylvania’s I-80 because the tolls were going to be used for “other things” besides new capacity.

Later in the session, a representative of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association asked a panel of Congressional staffers what plans the Senate and House had for “relaxing restrictions on tolling of interstate highways as a way to propel additional funding into the system.”

First, a Republican staffer from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee answered, “We have no problem with tolls. Paying the true cost of the road is something we’re going to have to address.”

He said state DOTs are like utilities with growing needs and no ability to change their rates. “At some point we’re going to have to give states the ability to pay for their own infrastructure,” he said. “It should not be the federal government’s position to inhibit states from providing for themselves.”

He said he had yet to see the administration’s proposal on tolling but “little birdies have told me it’s not looking good. And there are many people that believe that the interstates should be free.”

Another staffer from the House side, however, affirmed that Republicans are “not looking at tolling existing capacity.”

Richardson of the Iowa DOT says it’s frustrating when federal officials talk about their big, “bold” ideas for investment without being realistic about how they’re going to raise the money to pay for it. Like a gas tax increase, tolling for state of good repair appears to be “off the table,” leaving many state officials wondering how the administration’s big plans for infrastructure investment will ever get off the ground.