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Tolling Points

New Federal Highway Bill Could Produce 'Teachable Moments' on Tolling

By: 
Bill Cramer

The federal transportation reauthorization process took another step forward last week when the House Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) Committee released a five-year, $494-billion plan to fund highways, transit, safety and research programs.

Given the nuance and complexity of the legislative process, it remains to be seen how far the “Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation” (INVEST) in America Act will get before Members of Congress are fully consumed with the election campaign this fall. But despite some details that will need careful consideration in the weeks ahead, IBTTA swiftly issued a statement welcoming the House bill.

“IBTTA is pleased that Congress is moving forward with efforts to reinvest in America’s vital transportation infrastructure,” said Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones. “While the bill contains many positive provisions, we are disappointed that it rolls back the clock and removes the flexibility that Congress has granted states in previous transportation acts. We look forward to working with both the U.S. Senate and House on a bipartisan bill that strengthens our nation’s infrastructure and gives states the flexibility they need to reduce congestion and the negative effects of climate change.”

The Details Matter

The INVEST Act does not focus primarily on tolling or user financing, producing a situation where IBTTA Government Affairs Director Neil Gray found himself digging through an 850-page bill for “words or interesting phrasings” that called for closer attention. But the Democrats on House T&I are proposing to:

  • Repeal the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program (ISRRPP), the long-suffering initiative that held out the hope of allocating test slots to pilot tolling of existing interstate highways to fund their reconstruction;
  • Sunset the Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP), which encourages efforts to use variable tolling to manage congestion;
  • Reestablish the requirement for a toll agreement with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) before an agency can establish a toll on a federal aid highway;
  • Set new “guardrails” around tolling to address any adverse impacts of a project, within the facility or beyond;
  • Fund vehicle miles travelled (VMT) pilot projects within a new national program;
  • Clarify technical aspects of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA).

The biggest change is the restriction on the VPPP, which has allowed states to convert existing High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) facilities or price managed lanes. Gray says there’s some concern the sunsetting of this program may make it difficult or impossible for states to launch badly needed price managed lane projects to reduce traffic congestion and give long-suffering commuters some relief.

The INVEST in America Act would modify the way tolling might proceed in the future—moving away from streamlining regulations and administrative processes towards re-establishing additional oversight over toll rates and policies enacted at the state and local level. While oversight is not a bad thing, adding a federal level over issues that are already heavily scrutinized and debated in the localities where they are being proposed can only delay efforts to improve transportation conditions and access to cities and regions that are struggling to return to some form of “normal”.

How (Legislative) Sausage is Made

So what’s next? Given that several Congressional committees have jurisdiction over transportation programs and policies, it’s never easy to move multi-year transportation bills like the INVEST in America Act.

Although the House bill is just days old, Gray says the reauthorization process kicked off 10 months ago, when the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee adopted a bipartisan, five-year transportation bill, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA). But even that bit of early momentum points to the complexity of the process.

The Senate EPW Committee is responsible for highways program policies, while the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has jurisdiction over safety and commuter rail programs. The Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over public transportation concerns and the powerful Finance Committee is responsible for identifying how things are “paid” for.

In the House, the T&I Committee has broader authority for surface transportation policy than the Senate EPW Committee, with jurisdiction over highway, safety, commuter rail and public transportation programs. But the House Ways & Means Committee must still determine how the various provisions of a House surface transportation bill will be paid for.

Once the various committees have done their work and the results have been adopted by the full House and Senate, a joint conference committee convenes to reconcile any differences between the bills.

The division of responsibilities gives more of our elected representatives a chance to influence the outcome at different points along the way. But it’s not necessarily a process that is built for speed.

Which is why it will be interesting to see how the House process plays out. When they released the INVEST in America Act June 3, the Democrats on the House T&I Committee said they would take the bill to mark-up on June 17 and invite comments from their Republican colleagues, in the hope of bringing a finished surface transportation policy bill to the floor of the House in early July.

In a year with many other competing pressures for limited time on the Congressional calendar, it is unclear if the entire legislative process on a surface transportation bill can be completed this year.

There is no doubt the debate on the INVEST Act and the ATIA legislation will be intense and instructive for all. And it will produce a new round of teachable moments on the role of tolling and user financing in Moving America Forward.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 10:30

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