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Tolling Points

Tolling and the New Psychology of Highway Funding: Part 2

By: 
Patrick Jones

In the second of a two-part series, IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Pat Jones shares some of his most important takeaways from the association’s 2016 Transportation Policy and Finance Summit, March 13-15, 2016 in Washington, DC. While the conference was about infrastructure funding, many of the most valuable insights from panelists and participants had to do with the way decision-makers, toll customers, and the general public think about their highways.

The new psychology of highway funding is playing out in legislatures across the United States, with several states embracing new tolling projects at the same time that federal representatives steer away from more traditional forms of highway funding.

The States: Tolling Gets Rolling

All Politics (And Solutions) Are Local was the title of a Tuesday morning session that featured four representatives of states with new tolling projects on the books, or under active consideration.

Peter Garino, Deputy Director of the Rhode Island DOT, talked about Rhode Island’s Rhode Works initiative, in which the smallest state in the nation will toll large commercial trucks crossing 14 bridges.

Participants heard that Connecticut had received a report from the Governor’s Transportation Finance Panel that identified tolling as an essential tool in the highway funding toolbox. That Wisconsin had hired HNTB to conduct a toll feasibility study, while Washington State has been examining the broad implications of an eroding gas tax and rising transportation demand.

Congress: Don’t Expect a Gas Tax Increase

Contrast the refreshing tone of that panel with the stark realism of an earlier session, where senior staff for two Congressional committees made it clear that we will never see an increase in the federal gas tax—much as we might wish for it, and however logical it might be, it’s never going to happen.

The message came first from Alex Herrgott, deputy staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Then it was reinforced by Chris Bertram, staff director for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“I still think that if you're ever going to find a long-term financial solution for the Highway Trust Fund, it will probably not come from a highway bill with a gas tax increase,” Bertram said, in comments that were reported March 16 by Politico Morning Transportation.

“Chances are it comes in terms of some other larger legislative vehicle—a budget deal, finance tax reform, something like that. Because the people who want to have support for whatever that tax reform package is, they would be very interested in having the transportation community as part of their coalition to push that through.” So “looking forward, I think that's the most likely outcome."

In the absence of a higher gas tax, panelist David Horner of Hunton & Williams said the federal government will inevitably become an advocate for tolling, as the need for alternate funding approaches becomes clear to all. When that day comes, our industry will be in a great position to offer proven, practical solutions.

An Integrated Solution: Tolling Meets Road User Charging

The discussion on legislative action set the stage for an insight that could lead to an integrated approach to tolling and road usage charging.

In a presentation devoted to the changes that will be wrought by the emergence and adoption of autonomous and connected vehicles, Jack Opiola with D’Artagnan Consulting explained that a road usage charge is not just a matter of attaching a toll to every road. The difference, he said, is that RUC is a system-wide charge that can gradually replace the gas tax, whereas a toll is a charge to maintain a specific facility.  In most cases, the toll on a particular road will be much higher than a RUC that is collected on every mile of roadway in a state.

It may seem like an arcane point, pointing back to the problems with communication and vocabulary that I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series. But it’s a fundamentally important point that highway professionals need to understand—both to put it into practice, and to explain it to customers and the general public.

Click here to view various presentations from IBTTA’s 2016 Transportation Policy and Finance Summit.

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