WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday asked Congress to end the prohibition on tolling existing interstate highways as a way of paying for their reconstruction, marking a major shift away from how the system has been funded for decades.
The proposal is part of President Barack Obama’s $302 billion infrastructure bill aimed at addressing a looming shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund. States are currently able to toll interstates only to add lanes, but many simply don’t have the funds they need to widen or rebuild the oldest sections of interstate, nor does the federal government.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday that the federal Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of cash in August, a scenario that would hurt most states. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a trade group, 31 states rely on federal funds for more than half their highway and bridge improvements.
Longtime advocates of expanded tolling lauded the proposal.
Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, noted that 35 states had used tolling as a “proven and effective option” for infrastructure improvements.
“We applaud the administration for taking the bold step of proposing to lift the ban on interstate tolling,” Jones said.
Still, the trucking industry and motorist groups renewed their opposition Tuesday.
Toll opponents argue that payment collection systems are inefficient, that they raise costs for businesses and consumers, and that they divert traffic to local roads that were never designed for large volumes of traffic.
The trucking industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support increasing federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, though the White House and Congress have shown little appetite for that. Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations and a former Republican governor of Kansas, called the administration’s plan “disappointing.”
“The focus must be on real, long-term funding answers rather than repeatedly looking for the proverbial ‘nickels in the couch cushions,’ ” Graves said.
The country’s 47,000 miles of interstate highway have largely been free of tolls since the system’s creation in 1956. Its construction and maintenance was funded through a per-gallon tax on gasoline. The tax was increased only three times in its history, most recently in 1993.