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Tolling Points

As the Highway Trust Fund Continues to Decline, Tolling Becomes Increasingly Critical

Bill Cramer

The shift in fuel tax revenues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic might make an already difficult transportation reauthorization bill now being considered by Congress even more complicated.

With about 85 percent of the dollars coming from fuel taxes, revenue to the U.S. Highway Trust Fund fell about 41 percent in June, from $3.7 billion in 2019 to $2.2 billion in 2019, Politico reports [subscription required]. That was an improvement over May, when year-over-year receipts were down a massive 79 percent. Due to these loss of revenues the HTF is looking at a 14 percent overall decline for the year to date.

The numbers reinforce the concern emerging from a report by the national transportation research non-profit, TRIP, which proved what transportation managers everywhere already know—that repair and refurbishment needs along the U.S. interstate highway system don’t stop accumulating during a global health crisis.

Part of the problem, Politico explains, is with the way HTF disbursements are calculated. “Though people are now driving as much as they did before the pandemic, according to data from INRIX, it takes a few months for government data to catch up with the reality on the road,” the Washington Beltway daily states, “in part because the gas tax is assessed at the wholesale level, not the consumer level.”

Tolling Stands Ready to Serve

The situation is bound to produce headaches for federal legislators trying to hammer out a new surface transportation program—but it also points back to a proven solution they’ve been hearing about for years.

“While the Highway Trust Fund will probably not become insolvent before the current transportation authorization law expires on September 30, diminished receipts for the year could further complicate the task of finding a way to pay for a new reauthorization,” Politico says. “The volatility also makes it challenging to forecast future Highway Trust Fund receipts, especially as parts of the country open up and shut back down at different times.”

Fortunately for Congress, and for anyone who depends on a safe reliable highway network, the HTF is not the only tool in the funding toolbox. Since dollars are scarce, future funding projections are hazy, the need for roadway projects on the rise, and the status of reopening uncertain, tolling, and other forms of user financing are up and running to provide safe and well maintained mobility to keep our economy moving forward.

It wouldn’t be the first time COVID-19 set the stage for a new way of doing things—just ask any tolling agency that has accelerated the introduction of all-electronic systems, or any office worker who never could have imagined logging in from home every day for four months—until they did. If legislators do look to tolling, they might find afterwards that there’s no imaginable reason to go back to the way things were.

Click here for your copy of IBTTA’s Grassroots Toll Kit.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 09:15


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