Unveiling his $175 billion plan for funding U.S. highways over the next six years, President Clinton proposed Wednesday allowing states to start charging tolls on interstate highways and letting them use the revenue to improve their transportation systems.
“States need a lot of resources - state, federal and other - to keep up with the aging of their transportation systems,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Mortimer Downey said Wednesday. “This could be one more way to raise those dollars.”
The Clinton package, which would replace the sweeping legislation known as the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act, also includes initiatives to provide money to help former welfare recipients travel to their jobs, beef up funding for air quality improvement programs and give states and localities more flexibility to use federal funds in ways that best suit their needs.
“As we invest in these bridges and roads and transit systems, we also are building a bridge to a cleaner environment. We’re building a bridge from welfare to work,” Clinton said in outlining his proposal. “We’re building a bridge to sustainable communities that can last and grow and bring people together over the long run.”
It is not clear how Congress will respond to Clinton’s proposal to allow states to collect tolls on interstate highways. Currently, states are allowed to charge tolls on state roads as well as on bridges and tunnels on interstate highways - but not the highways themselves.
“We want to see better, safer transportation systems with greater capacity,” Downey said. “Those need to be paid for in one way or another, and tolls actually would allocate those costs to the users.”
Downey said the Transportation Department does not know which states would be likely to start collecting tolls.
Critics complained that Clinton would divert federal highway trust fund money, which is badly needed for new bridges and highways, to meet social goals that should be funded from general tax revenues.
The trust fund is financed with federal taxes on sales of gasoline, diesel fuel and tires, which raise more than $20 billion a year. About two-thirds of that money is spent on highways and bridges; the rest goes to an array of other transportation purposes.
Clinton’s proposal was called “the highway robbery announcement” by Bill Fey, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, a lobbying organization that represents car makers and the American Automobile Association.
“His proposal is essentially: let’s take highway user taxes and give it to cities for environmental programs, let’s give it to Amtrak, which we’ve never done, let’s give more highway-user taxes to mass transit, highway taxes for the first time to freight rail.”
He asserted that Clinton was proposing a cut in highway construction spending.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” he said, noting that sentiment in Congress was strong for a large increase in federal spending on highways and bridges.
The American Automobile Association said it was “unalterably opposed” to interstate tolls. “The public has already paid for these roads through the 18.3 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax,” said James L. Kolstad, AAA vice president for public and government relations. “Adding tolls is double taxation clear and simple.”
White House officials insisted that Clinton’s proposal represented a pragmatic recognition of serious transportation needs balanced against the budget constraints.
“The president would like to do more to deal with critical infrastructure problems, but he also has to deal with the budget deficit,” said Gene Sperling, head of the White House National Economic Council.
Transportation Department officials said the president had suggested increasing spending on highway and truck safety by $2 billion.
In all, the bill, called National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act, or NEXTEA, would increase transportation spending by $17 billion, or 11 percent from the $157 billion authorized in the 1991 transportation planning bill.
Taken as a whole, the president’s proposal generated mixed reactions from Congress. But the legislative process is just beginning, and initial reactions indicate that specific elements of Clinton’s plan are sure to spur heated debate.
“In the past, this administration’s legislative submissions were routinely referred to as ‘DOA’ or ‘dead on arrival.’ Well, that’s not going to be the case with this one,” said Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House committee on transportation and infrastructure, which has jurisdiction over the legislation. “On the other hand, we have some very serious concerns with the proposal.”
Other elements of Clinton’s version of the sweeping transportation bill would:
Give states financial incentives to fight drunken and drugged driving and increase the use of safety belts and child restraints.
Provide $600 million over six years to states to develop innovative transportation systems, such as van pools, to help transport former welfare recipients to jobs.
Increase funding for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program by 30 percent, to $1.3 billion annually. Responding to new research on the dangers of particulate matter, the program would make funds available to areas that do not meet health standards for this air pollutant.
Create new programs to improve border crossings and develop major trade corridors within the United States, cutting congestion and eliminating bottlenecks.