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: ##http://www.iowadot.gov/about/messagefromthedirector.htm##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.

  • icarus12

    It seems to me there are three reasons not to place state tolls on interstate highways:

    The first is the question whether such tolls inhibit interstate commerce — a constitutional issue. If an attorney familiar with these matters could comment here, I would appreciate it.

    The second is the possible bottlenecks around all those cars stopping to pay tolls in or near urban areas. A literal firestorm accident on I-95 in Connecticut contributed to toll booth removal there 30+ years ago.

    The third is that certain, mostly rural areas could have their access road cut off when farmers wanted to travel from one field to another, or residents from one town to another. This is currently the uproar in parts of Greece where tolling has been newly introduced. Local residents in these oddly configured areas need some sort of free pass for purely local travel.

  • Stewart Clamen

    I have to pay a usage fee to cross a state line on federally-supported public transit systems. Is that unconstitutional as well?

    Also, isn’t the George Washington Bridge an Interstate (also an inter-state) Route?

    EZ-Pass wasn’t available 30 years ago. There is no longer any need to stop to pay a toll.

  • kevd

    My biggest problem with tolls is the inefficiency of their collection.
    There are either traffic tie-ups at old fashioned toll plazas, or a whole bunch of money has to be invested in technological solutions.

    A far simpler solution is a higher gas tax. The cost of charging a higher gas tax is $0.00 – okay a tiny bit of reprogramming, but infinitesimal work compared to building ez pass toll plazas.
    Raise the gas tax high enough to pay for both new construction and maintenance. What would that require? 50 cents a gallon? A dollar a gallon?

    And interstate comerse? Give me a break. For the reason Stewart mentioned or any one of dozens more.

  • Thom

    “EZ-Pass wasn’t available 30 years ago. There is no longer any need to stop to pay a toll.”

    Sure, fine, except that some portion of drivers are never going to buy an EZ-Pass, so tolls will always mean traffic jams, pollution and accidents, not to mention paying state employees to do pointless and inefficient work.

    I have no idea why anybody supports tolls. Drivers hate them because they’re annoying. Anti-driving enviro folks like myself should hate them because they dump pointless CO2 into the atmosphere (and they hit efficient cars just as much as inefficient ones). People trying to raise revenue should hate them because they’re an inefficient way of raising revenue. kevd’s got it–we should just raise gas taxes. They’re just as unpopular, but they’re more effective at promoting sustainable transit, and their way more efficient.

  • SteveS

    Gas taxes and tolls should be used for different purposes: tolls should be a use fee to cover the full cost of the construction and maintenance of roads, and should be assessed based on distance traveled and weight of the vehicle (i.e. how much wear it puts on the pavement, which is roughly calculated by charging based on the number of axles). The problem of this kind of toll collection has already been solved by a combination of tags and cameras: people with the tags get some kind of discount, people without them get a bill in the mail.

    The gas tax should really be replaced with a pollution fee directed towards mitigation of the carbon, particulates and other pollutants produced when the gas is burned. In this way you would pay a lower pollution fee to the extent that your vehicle is more efficient, and a lower toll to the extent that you drive shorter distances: a much more fair pricing scheme that incentivizes better behavior.

  • Richard

    It seems to me there might be a legitimate interstate commerce issue if primarily out-of-state drivers are tolled to benefit mostly in-state drivers. Examples would be tolling only at the state line or on interstates and US routes with lots of of out-of-state traffic and cross-subsidizing maintenance or construction of routes that serve almost entirely in-state traffic.

    So the Feds might want to keep an eye on who’s paying and who’s benefiting as an interstate commerce issue, but as the proportions of in-state and out-of-state road users and toll-payers are about the same, who cares if the $ is for maintenance or expansion?

  • Richard

    That last sentence should read “but as long as the proportions…”

  • LazyReader

    It’s time for maybe a little private investors. I’ve heard of some of these plans. In France, a private company built a double decked under-ground highway beneath Paris. Turning a 45 minute commute into a 10 minute trip. In California a private company added 2 new toll lanes to highway 91. Drivers have the freedom to use them or not. If they do use it, they don’t stop at toll collection booths and drop change which slows things down and adds to congestion.

    Collection of tolls are done using sensors, EZ pass style devices stuck to your windshield. Others will just snap a picture of your license plate for every time you use the lanes and send you a bill every month. And since uncongested roads actually move more vehicles per hour than congested roads, you just think the congested roads are fuller. And less congestion means less gas is wasted and money saved being out of traffic and costs of saved gas outweighs the cost of tolls. And if you are stuck in traffic on these lanes, you’re entitled to refunds. The fewer vehicles they can pass through, the less money they make. Even if the toll is 75 cents or a few bucks. Competing companies may offer lower prices on their roads even though the road is a little longer. These private companies footed the bill for nearly everything building the lanes, maintenance and infrastructure and security and safety, they have greater incentive to get you through traffic as quickly as possible, so the roads tend to be very smooth, very straight with a few curvatures and typically well looked after.

    Reference to the federal Department of Transportation. I would argue we abolish the department. There are things that can be done on the federal level like interstate, international commerce and maritime stuff and the airlines but most personal travel never leaves their respective state. So we don’t need a vast government watchdog for travel along the highway thats simply a few miles. Most of what the Federal Department does is commerce related activitie and licensing and registration stuff in the same state. International and interstate commerce can have those duties handed over the Department of Commerce. All the small transportation responsibilities can be handed over to the individual states. Reducing or getting rid of the federal gas tax [which is roughly 18 cents a gallon] would have a greater role in the states ability to manage affairs. For every penny reduced on the federal level, the states will simply raise it on theirs [ or have federal gas taxes eliminated completley ]. By doing that, the federal government can’t earmark revenues or play with it or tamper with states potential budgets. By doing this the states will finally learn that the money they have is all they’ve got, they won’t receive fresh infusions of federal funds due to some fiscal emergency. Then they’ll think twice before engaging in spendthrift behavior such as wasteful transit projects or super-duper-mega highway things.

    About 70 percent of the construction and maintenance costs of highways in the U.S. are covered through user fees (net of collection costs), primarily gasoline taxes collected by the federal government and state and local governments, and to a much lesser extent tolls collected on toll roads and bridges. The rest of the costs are borne by general fund receipts, bond issues, and designated property and other taxes. The federal contribution is overwhelmingly from motor vehicle and fuel taxes. Theirs no reason to think they couldn’t pay for all of it using state appropriated scale revenues and eliminate the federal scale. Coalitions however can be formed to deal with bridges or tunnels that cross state lines.

    Eventually, cars will drive themselves not to long from now, easing traffic congestion to the point where we’ll fit 3-4 times as many cars on highways than current. We won’t need as many lanes. Those miserable 10 or 20 lane Highway nightmares will thin out. And we’ll spend far less on roads when we require far less of them. The first deliberate down scale of our highways without decresing capacity.

  • LazyReader

    I didn’t mean to say spendthrift, I mean’t spendful ( assuming that’s a word)

  • kevd

    @ Richard – ever taken 95 through Delaware? There don’t seem to be any problems charging mostly out of state drivers to benefit mostly in state drivers now. At least not in Delaware.

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