Tolls No Answer for Infrastructure: Industry Groups

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By Shaun Courtney

Industry groups eager for President Donald Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan were alarmed that new interstate tolls and rest stop privatization were among the plan’s possible funding sources.

The administration included an infrastructure principles document with the president’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget released May 23. A full legislative package isn’t anticipated until the third quarter, so the May 23 document is the start of a conversation on infrastructure, Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters in a phone call May 23.

“While [the American Trucking Associations] is encouraged by the apparent focus on infrastructure investment in this budget, an investment we strongly support and look forward to helping the administration and congress shape, we are deeply concerned by the proposal to loosen the restrictions on interstate tolling,” Bill Sullivan, executive vice president for advocacy for the trucking group, said in a statement.

Congress Open to New Funding

Unlike the swift response from industry, congressional leaders on key infrastructure-related committees were slower to criticize specific proposals like tolls or other funding methods.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said the budget “reflects the reality of long-term infrastructure funding in America.”

“All solutions need to be on the table, because simply continuing with the status quo will not produce the infrastructure improvements our Nation needs,” Shuster said in a statement.

Shuster has received since 2012 nearly $40,000 in donations from PACs and individuals affiliated with the trucking association, according to campaign finance data available from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The top Democrat on the House appropriations transportation committee, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), said tolls are just one option for funding infrastructure.

“The notion that tolling is the answer to this? No, not at all. It’s one of many tools,” Price told Bloomberg BNA.

Price called the administration’s budget “totally inadequate.”

Taking Toll

Interstate highways that received federal aid are generally prohibited from tolling under current U.S. Code. The restrictions apply to existing interstates, but there are exceptions that allow tolls on new highways, new lanes on existing interstates, new tunnels and other similar toll-financed construction, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

A small section of the Trump administration’s infrastructure investment fact sheet, however, called for reconsidering this restriction because it keeps private investors from supporting such projects:

“We should reduce this restriction and allow the States to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets,” the fact sheet states.

Advocacy groups that stand to benefit from either actual construction jobs under the infrastructure plan or just from improvements to existing interstates, however, argue that tolls are an unfair funding source.

“Under this proposal, the same people who have been paying fuel taxes to build and maintain these roads will have to pay tolls, too,” Lisa Mullings, CEO of NATSO, the travel plaza and truck stop industry association, said in a statement.

The chairman of toll services for HNTB Corp., an infrastructure solutions firm that serves public and private owners, said it is accurate to say interstates are “already paid for.”

“The challenge becomes there are only so many ways to raise funds,” Kevin Hoeflich, HNTB Corp. chairman of toll services, told Bloomberg BNA.

The trucking association called tolls politically unpopular, pointing to interstate toll projects recently rejected in North Carolina and Virginia, both part of a federal highway pilot program to toll interstates.

Price said tolls have worked in some places in his home state, less so in others. Either way, decisions on tolls should be left up to states and localities, he said.

Though North Carolina and Virginia may have backed away from tolling interstates, Hoeflich said he believes other states would consider the option if the infrastructure proposal expanded the pilot program. His company often represents state departments of transportation in major infrastructure projects.

“The states need to consider all of the various ways you fund transportation, tolls would just be one tool in the toolbox,” said HNTB’s Hoeflich.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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