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Time for a New Conversation on Tolling

By: 
Bill Cramer

The tolling provisions in the White House’s Fact Sheet, 2018 Budget: Infrastructure Initiative released this week, and the immediate reaction that followed, point to the need for a new conversation between toll operators and the businesses and customers we serve.

The passage in question is a bullet point that talks about “liberalizing tolling policy” and allowing states “to assess their transportation needs and weigh the relative merits of tolling assets.” Those words are a lifeline for anyone who depends on roadway infrastructure (that’s all of us), understands the depth of the highway infrastructure funding crisis, realizes there are no free roads and has given up—however reluctantly—on the prospect of a federal gas tax increase.

But you wouldn’t know it from the immediate reaction to the President’s legislative proposal, some of which has almost been poetic (credit where due) in its opposition to using every tool in the funding toolbox to solve an urgent, pervasive crisis.

“Anyone who’s been a part of the funding debate for any length of time knows that we’ve been around this bend several times before,” says IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones. “And that we won’t reach the solution we all say we want if we spend the coming days and weeks retreating to our usual corners and repeating the same talking points.”

Changing the Conversation

The release of the White House Budget is the beginning of a debate, not the end. As the succession of facts and arguments plays out, here are four things to keep in mind if we want a better outcome this time.

·       Flexibility to toll interstate highways to fund their reconstruction is not a mandate. No one is requiring states to introduce new tolls. The breakthrough is in the opportunity for regional and state governments—the jurisdictions that are closest to voters and highway users—to come up with the mix of funding and financing options that best suits their circumstances.

·       Tolling puts new money into the system, without drawing on the federal budget. The interstate highway system was created in 1956. Today, the 49,000 miles of interstate are showing their age. The end-to-end cost of reconstruction will exceed $1 trillion. And the cost of postponing the work will be measured in hours wasted on congested roads, pollutants entering the atmosphere, and lives and livelihoods lost in preventable collisions.

·       By producing a funding stream for highway improvements, tolling frees up available gas tax money for other, equally important projects. That means many tens or hundreds of thousands of highway users benefit, even if they never pass a gantry or pay a toll.

·       The trucking and tolling industries agree on the urgent need to invest more in highway infrastructure. And both parties have acknowledged that the money won’t likely come from a federal gas tax increase. “This week’s announcement is an opportunity for both industries to move the issue forward,” Jones notes. “But only if we can change the narrative that has kept it stalled for decades.”

What Truckers Get for Their Tolling Dollar

It’s no secret that much of the opposition to easing the restrictions on interstate tolling has come from commercial trucking organizations. The irony is that, in many states across the country, the two industries are interdependent. And IBTTA members, toll facility owners and operators, go the extra mile to cater to truckers’ needs, always on the lookout for ideas and innovations that will make their tough job a little bit easier.

“When you see a truck on the road, it isn’t there because it’s on a pleasure trip or joyriding,” Jones notes. “The driver and the truck are there because they’re at work. They’re doing business. They’re delivering the goods. They’re out there because they have to be, because they’re serving the freight and goods pipeline of America.”

Our common ground: The exact same line of thought applies to tolled roads, bridges, and tunnels.

“The toll facility is there. But it’s useless unless someone rides on it, and people ride on it because they derive a benefit when they do. And month after month and year after year our toll facility owners and operators are reporting an increase in usage. Drivers are definitely seeing the value.” Jones continues.

“Truckers get a safe, comfortable ride. They get time and trip reliability. They get premium services like rest areas that allow them to rest, that allow them to break down and reassemble their longer combination vehicles. They can get the fuel, food, showers, sleeping facilities, and other services they need.”

As an example, Jones points to the Ohio Turnpike, where Executive Director Randy Cole recently briefed the TRB Future Interstate Study Committee on his agency’s efforts to completely rebuild 241-miles of the turnpike, a key freight link in Ohio’s interstate network.

“We’re not there to penalize the trucking industry,” Jones said. We’re there to help truckers do their job. We want to help them drive fewer miles, using safer more direct routes, saving their companies money, and allowing the drivers to get to their destinations on time.  And home.”

What Comes Next

As we said earlier, the White House Budget is the beginning of a dialogue between the Executive Branch and Congress, leavened by input from a wide array of stakeholders. The Fact Sheet, with its tantalizing reference to reducing the restrictions to interstate tolling, is a conversation starter, not a final word. The next step—the debate on Capitol Hill, and the response from the rest of us—could set the country on an unprecedented path forward.

Or not.

To some extent, the outcome is up to every organization that plans to intervene in the budget process.

Over the last several years, IBTTA has been engaged in a continuing dialogue with association leaders across the transportation community. We convened 18 national organizations for our Transportation Visioning Summit late last year, and in July we’ll be co-hosting our annual All-Electronic Tolling and Managed Lanes Symposium with the Transportation Research Board.

When we talk to each other, we invariably find out that we share the same objectives: safer highways, reduced congestion, and on-time freight deliveries.  And increasingly, we find common ground on the solutions, as long as the watchwords are flexibility, innovation, and results—the same objectives embodied in the Fact Sheet.

“There are times when you have to seize the moment, and this is one of them,” Jones says. “As a transportation community, we owe it to our members, our customers, and each other to get this right.” That starts with showing elected officials that the wider community agrees on what it will take to deliver the flexible, diverse funding package our surface transportation system needs.