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Tolling Points

Tolling: a proven mobility and funding solution right in front of our eyes

Bill Cramer

With a call for a bipartisan infrastructure plan to “make this country stronger for decades to come,” President Obama’s sixth’s State of the Union address raised the curtain on a debate that will shape the future of America’s highway transportation system.

After last year’s temporary patch for the federal Highway Trust Fund, legislators have until May to agree on a more permanent solution to a multi-billion-dollar funding deficit. Monday’s collapse of a highway overpass along Interstate 75 in Cincinnati is just the latest dramatic reminder that “21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure,” as the President said in his address.

"The President and the 114th Congress must acknowledge that current federal resources are too limited to satisfy the states urgent surface transportation needs,” IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick D. Jones said in his response to the State of the Union. “Before another bridge collapses, Congress must examine every revenue source to find sustainable ways to build, maintain, and reconstruct our nation’s bridges, tunnels, and highways.”

Helping the States Take the Lead
It isn’t as though states are reticent to solve the highway funding crisis. In the same mid-term elections that brought the 114th Congress to office, voters adopted a variety of bond issues and local sales tax initiatives to pay for the highway improvements their communities need. “Collectively, these measures are generating billions in additional revenue for state and local transportation programs,” wrote infrastructure analyst Ken Orski.

That experience underscored Jones’ assertion Tuesday evening that "states are more than willing to do their share to accomplish their transportation goals.” He urged the president and Congress to “work together to provide states with greater flexibility to meet their individual transportation funding needs—including the right to use tolling on their existing Interstate highways for the purpose of reconstruction.”

An All-of-the-Above Strategy
In his State of the Union address, President Obama noted that "where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments.” Nowhere is that observation more poignant than in highway transportation, where the buying power of the federal gas tax has steadily eroded since it was last increased in 1993. It’s a situation that cries out for a flexible menu of funding options, and "tolling is one of the most powerful, effective, and time-tested tools in the funding toolbox,” Jones noted.

With a wide range of local needs across a far-flung national system, America needs an “all-of-the-above” strategy to fund highway maintenance, repairs, and improvements, including the reconstruction of an aging Interstate system. And the White House opened the door for a broader strategy in its 2014 budget proposal, which offered the states greater flexibility to toll interstate highways for purposes of their reconstruction.

Highway infrastructure funding is a national priority that has customarily transcended partisan differences, and if legislators can come together on a multi-year reauthorization bill this year, every American will benefit. So far, tolling has been discussed at the federal level but has not yet received wide acceptance. If it is added to the federal mix, state and local governments will have one more way to move smarter, farther and faster to meet their constituents’ mobility needs.


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