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Tolling Points

U.S. Research Body Endorses Interstate Tolling, Per-Mile Charges and Raising the Gas Tax

By: 
Bill Cramer

The U.S. Transportation Research Board (TRB) is out with an early holiday present for anyone who depends on a safe, reliable highway system to get where they need to go. The Board’s consensus study report, titled Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System, diagnoses the depth of the reconstruction challenge and prescribes tolls, per-mile charges and raising the gas tax as an important part of the solution.

“Current federal restrictions on tolling of existing Interstate mileage are a major impediment to expanded reliance on tolls and congestion fees for the Interstate Highway System,” the TRB notes [p. 208]. If those restrictions were lifted, “states would benefit from having the option to impose tolls, with the receipts being used to rebuild and improve existing high-cost Interstate segments and manage demand on routes too costly to expand.”

IBTTA Executive Director and CEO Patrick D. Jones applauded the report for “focusing on the actions needed to upgrade and restore the Interstate Highway System to meet the growing demands of our 21st century economy.” The consensus report “takes dead aim at the biggest obstacle to rebuilding our Interstate Highways: insufficient funding,” he said. 

“We commend today’s consensus report for calling on Congress to eliminate restrictions on tolling Interstate highways and granting states increased flexibility to raise needed funds to rebuild the Interstate highways they own and operate,” Jones added.

A Backbone in Need of an Upgrade

The consensus committee that developed the report was chaired by Norman Augustine, former chair and CEO of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corporation. In his statement on the release, he pulled no punches on the state of the interstate highway system, or its importance to the country. (See this video for more statements from Norman Augustine and Pat Jones.)

“The interstates have long been the backbone of our country’s transportation system, but most of them have exceeded their design lives and in many places are worn and overused,” Augustine said. “These aging interstates are highly congested oftentimes and in need of reconstruction.”

At the same time, “technological advances are offering new opportunities, but they may also undermine a principal source of income for the interstates, namely the tax on fuel,” he continued. “We recommend a course of action that is aggressive and ambitious, but by no means novel. Essentially, we need a reinvigoration of the federal and state partnership that produced the Interstate Highway System in the first place.” 

The report points to a familiar set of challenges facing the system, from aging assets that must be refurbished before they become less safe, to keeping pace with changing technology, population patterns, climate conditions, and funding mechanisms. It concludes that the major upgrades committee members envisioned “would require the federal and state governments to coordinate and focus their efforts on a goal similar to the one that motivated the system’s development under the original Interstate Highway System Construction Program.”

Finding the Dollars

And that’s where tolling and per-mile charges come into play, in a future surface transportation system where annual capital spending increases from $25 billion to between $45 and $70 billion per year, with the federal government picking up most of the tab.

“To raise the additional new revenue needed for system upgrades, the committee recommended increasing the federal fuel tax in the near term and allowing tolls or per-mile charges on interstate users,” the TRB’s report summary states. “Lifting the ban on tolling that applies to most general purpose interstate lanes would provide states and metropolitan areas with more options for raising revenue for their share of RAMP [Interstate Highway System Renewal and Modernization Program] investments, and for managing the traffic demand on and operations of interstate segments that offer limited opportunity for physical expansion.”

And that’s the point where the TRB moves from endorsing a solution the transportation community has been advocating for years, to charting a course to actually make it happen.

The timing of the TRB’s intervention could not be better, with a new Congress due to be sworn in, in less than a month. It will be good to go into the next round of infrastructure advocacy and negotiations in 2019 with such a powerful, evidence-based ally at the table.

Stay in the know on federal surface transportation policy. Plan now to attend IBTTA’s Summit on Finance and Policy in Philadelphia, PA, May 19-21, 2019.