Funding Panel to Push Tolls Over Gas Tax

WASHINGTON — A second congressionally mandated commission weighing future transportation funding options is expected to issue an interim report this week that will say tolling roads is a more direct form of funding than the gas tax and should be considered for the near future, according to its chairman.

“A gas tax-only solution may not be the answer,” said Robert D. Atkinson, chair of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission, which plans to release its preliminary report Friday.

The final report could be published as soon as November.

His comments come after another transportation panel, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, released a report earlier this month that recommended the gas tax be raised by as much as 40 cents over five years and that the federal government rely on the tax for transportation funding through 2025.

That report was supported by nine of the 12 commission members, including vice chairman Jack Schenendorf, a transportation attorney with the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. Three commissioners dissented from the report’s recommendations, including commission chairman and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. In her dissent, Peters argued that greater use of tolling and private sector investment through public-private partnerships deals, or P3s, are the most effective way to mitigate traffic congestion.

Thinking in a similar vein as the dissenters of that report, the Atkinson-led commission believes that the shift to directly “pricing roads” could be made sooner and should be strongly considered given that the gas tax, according to the commission, is not a direct user fee.

“We think that the opportunity [for tolling roads] is more imminent,” said Atkinson, who is also president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based technology policy think tank. “This isn’t really a technology issue — not to say that the systems are perfect ... it is a deployment and governance issue.”

The gas tax “is not a direct user fee, so oftentimes drivers will be paying a 10th of what the true cost [imposed] on a particular stretch of road,” Atkinson said. “We think just increasing the amount of money to an indirect user fee has some limitations.”

The commission chairman pointed out that it would likely be politically difficult to boost the gas tax.

“There doesn’t seem to be an appetite to do that,” he said.

Currently, federal funding for highway and transit construction is derived from the current 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax. The revenue is collected and put into the highway trust fund. The trust fund revenue is distributed to states annually based on a formula and is used to help fund road and transit projects.

States sometimes use their portion of trust fund dollars to repay tax-exempt bonds issued to finance projects. Many state and local governments also employ a gas tax to generate transportation funding.

The Atkinson commission’s report will discuss about 20 transportation-funding mechanisms, including vehicle registration fees, general funds, tolling, and the gas tax. Each funding source will be assessed using about 15 criteria the panel has developed, including the extent to which the mechanism charges current and future users for current and future benefits, the extent to which the mechanism provides incentive for infrastructure investments based on transparent and performance-based criteria, and the ease or difficulty of gaining political acceptance for the mechanism compared to other mechanisms.

Release of the report will come one day after the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Schenendorf commission report. The hearing comes after the panel Jan. 17 presented the report to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where the top Republican rejected the commission’s gas tax increase recommendation.

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