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Tolling Points

Transportation Funding Emerges as Mid-Term Election Issue

By: 
Bill Cramer

With mid-term elections in the United States only days away, campaign coverage in many states is pointing to the highway maintenance backlog and the need for durable funding solutions as a key issue for candidates and voters.

In Michigan, where Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer amped up her early campaign with a demand that legislators “fix the damn roads”, all three gubernatorial candidates have the issue on their radar, MLive reports. In Connecticut, where decision-makers have been giving serious consideration to reintroducing tolls, two out of three candidates for the governor’s mansion support some form of tolling, according to CT Post—and at least one local advocate is using IBTTA and ASECAP data to press the issue.

“You know that your message is resonating when other participants in the process take it in, adapt it, and make it their own,” says IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick Jones. “We’ve always taken the position that tolling and other forms of user financing are one important tool in the transportation funding toolbox. So even if they aren’t all talking about tolling, we’re delighted that so many of these candidates are making highway infrastructure an issue in their campaigns.”

Step One: Admit You Have a Problem

After decades of underfunding and a soaring maintenance deficit, no one should doubt that surface transportation is on a long road to recovery. The candidates in Michigan have taken the first step down that road—they are acknowledging the underfunding problem, and they’re all talking about it, even if they aren’t aligned just yet on the solution.

"Michigan can't be a first-place economic power if our roads are coming in last or third place,” said Republican Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette. “I mean, that just won't work."

"I understand the pressures that many of the legislators have to deal with, and we've gone to this sort of patchwork approach,” said Libertarian candidate Bill Gelineau. “We're only doing things in a crisis and patching things, and that's really expensive.”

"We are all paying,” Whitmer said. “We're paying a road tax every time we fix our windshields or replace our tires. And we're paying the worst kind of tax, because it's not actually fixing the problem."

Whitmer is proposing to invest $2 billion into the state’s infrastructure bank and attract another $1 billion in federal funds to cover low-interest loans for projects across the state, MLive reports. Schuette wants to make roads a priority within existing budgets and carve out another $250 million by cutting prevailing wage rates, and is a “hard no” on new taxes. Gelineau’s plan was still to be published when the MLive article appeared.

$350 Million from Truck Tolls and Expanded Transit

In Connecticut, meanwhile, a local news report opens with the poor condition of the state’s bridges and highways, and contends that none of the three candidates to replace term-limited governor Dannel Malloy is proposing the bold transportation solutions the state needs. But two of candidates are at least looking to tolling as a piece of the puzzle.

“Democrat Ned Lamont’s transportation plan includes highway tolls on heavy cargo trucks, which he says will bring in an estimated $350 million annually and help pay for expanding airports, fostering economic development around train stations, faster Metro-North service and expanded bus connections,” CT Post reports. “Independent candidate Oz Griebel favors statewide tolling and would re-establish a transportation strategy board to choose projects supported by the private and public sectors.”

Republican Bob Stefanowski, meanwhile, “opposes tolls and is pushing a plan that relies on unspecified budget cuts and savings, and reorganizing the state’s bonding priorities, to free up money for transportation projects.”

Front-Line Support for Tolling

An interesting point to note in Connecticut is that support and advocacy for tolling is coming from the ground up.

In an October 1st Q&A with Hartford Business.com, HNTB Associate Vice President Jennifer Carter talked about Malloy’s $100-billion, 30-year vision for the state’s highway system, including a plan to add toll revenue to its Special Transportation Fund. That focus from the outgoing administration has made transportation and tolling a point of contention among the candidate—which gave Carter an opportunity to explain the benefits of a modern, all-electronic tolling program.

“Tolling can provide Connecticut with a sustainable revenue source to bring our aging infrastructure to a state of good repair, and build the best-in-class transportation network needed to be economically competitive,” she said. “As a participant in the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program, Connecticut has a unique opportunity to help evaluate how different tolling strategies can help reduce congestion on our highways.”

Significantly, she added that “innovation in tolling technology has advanced significantly since Connecticut eliminated tolls in 1983.”

Then on Saturday, October 27, a letter to the editor in the Greenwich Free Press took the argument a step farther, supporting a candidate for State Senate based on his commitment to electronic tolls. To make her case, Lisa Vasquez of New Canaan, CT cited data from IBTTA and ASECAP.

“Tolling is one of the most powerful and effective tools to finance, build, maintain and improve road infrastructure,” Vasquez wrote. “The trend in road tolls has become widespread in the United States, as cars have become more fuel efficient through the use of hybrids and electric vehicles.”

With a large proportion of Americans supporting tolls and using toll highways, bridges and tunnels daily, neighboring states like New Jersey and New York generating more than $1 billion in toll revenue per year, “why can’t Connecticut get with the program?” she asked.

Check out some basics on tolling in this new infographic – Moving Us Forward: Why Toll Roads?