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Tolling Points

Federal Highway Administration Answers the 64-Million-Hour Question

By: 
Bill Cramer

At IBTTA’s Annual Meeting in Baltimore earlier this fall, it should have come as no surprise when honorary member Ed Regan, senior vice president at CDM Smith, went to the mic to ask the 64-million-hour question.

The 64 million hours refer, metaphorically and inexactly, to the time American drivers lose in congestion each year that could be prevented if the federal government lifted the ban on tolling existing interstate highway capacity to help fund its reconstruction. Regan’s question to the conference’s hot topics panel was simple and straightforward: what are the chances that Congress will soon take action on an obstacle that has been a holy grail for the tolling industry for at least a decade?

Regan noted that interstate tolling is an “implicit cornerstone” of any effort to reimagine or redefine tolling in America, and the most recent attempt at a White House infrastructure plan all but rescinded the ban. Regan asked panelists Bob Poole with the Reason Foundation, Joseph Kane with Brookings Institution and DJ Gribbin, former White House Infrastructure Policy Advisor to President Trump, what it would take to actually make the hope a reality.

Lots of Ways to Toll

Poole and Gribbin agreed there are already lots of ways to work around the ban. Poole said an exception for bridge tolling was written into the U.S. Federal Code 15 years ago, and Gribbin added that a half-dozen other exceptions are already in place.

“It’s less about what Congress does and more about finding states like Rhode Island to help drive change,” Gribbin told participants. Earlier discussion had centered on The Smallest State’s decision to impose truck-only tolls, and the opportunity it would create for freight carriers to avoid the delays and costs associated with urban interchanges.

Kane, Senior Research Associate at Brookings Institution, added that there’s ample scope to experiment at the local level. With opportunities for federal, state, and local governments to work together, he said there’s always potential for the political dynamic to shift.

Another Door Opens

In fact, almost in tandem with the discussion in Baltimore, another door was opening for interstate tolling. On October 2, the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) published an open-ended solicitation for candidate projects in the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP), with a requirement that successful bidders meet all program requirements within three years. The notice was a next step after FHWA first opened bids for the three available ISRRPP slots in October 2017.

“IBTTA members know that the moves leading up to this announcement have been an epic saga…if your literary tastes run to War and Peace, playing in slow motion,” we wrote at the time. “The three slots under ISRRPP have been available for some time. But they were snapped up in good faith by three states that had every intention of using them…then ran into unique local or regional hurdles that made it impossible for them to proceed.”

After that, “the slots remained filled. The hope for a series of pilot projects remained unfulfilled. And in a stunning Catch-22, tolling agencies had to fight the perception that there was no demand for interstate tolling, or no proof that it would work, despite several jurisdictions gently clamoring for access to the slots and the tolling revenue they represented.”

Now, after years of steady advocacy by IBTTA and its members, the logjam seems to be lifting. There are three openings. Neil Gray, Governemnt Affairs Director, IBTTA, says he knows of no one who’s applied yet. The lines are open, as they like to say on talk radio…and they’re taking the 64 millionth caller.