DALLAS – Allowing states to put tolls on interstate highways could provide the revenues needed to fund President Trump’s 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure renewal proposal, transportation experts said at an Infrastructure Week roundtable sponsored by the Eno Center for Transportation.
“It still remains to be seen how the Trump plan will come together, but Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has all but promised that it will involve the increased use of public-private partnerships,” said Eno president Robert Puentes at Thursday’s session. “Toll roads can’t help but be a major part of that.”
Chao told lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday that the administration intends to provide an outline of a long-term infrastructure plan within weeks, and unveil the plan's legislative text in the fall. The bill will contain $200 billion of new direct federal funding but will not include a list of projects that would be funded, she said.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate panel, said after Chao’s appearance that he is working with Democrats on the committee to develop a statement of general principles for a long-term infrastructure package while awaiting details of the Trump proposal.
"We are going to work with the White House, but we're not going to wait," he said.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at an Infrastructure Week legislative briefing on Wednesday night that he agreed with Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who said earlier that all revenue sources should be considered, including an increase in the gasoline tax. Inhofe is a former chairman of the Senate committee and current head of its panel on transportation and infrastructure.
“Everything needs to be on the table, but we’ve got to figure out how to fund this,” Shuster said at the event sponsored by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “If there’s a deal to be made, I’m willing to look at anything.”
Pat Jones, president of the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association, said at the roundtable that the prohibition first mandated in 1916 of tolls on roads built with federal aid is outdated.
“We’ve been advocating for interstate tolls for years, specifically for the purpose of rebuilding the interstate highways, as a state option,” Jones said.
Modern electronic collection methods that do not require tollbooths to collect fees at regular intervals provide smooth traffic flow, he said.
The initial version of the federal highway funding measure enacted in August 2005 originally contained an end to the ban on tolls on existing interstates built with federal funds, but it did not make it into the final bill, said Emil Frankel, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Transportation Department.
“It was permissive, not mandatory, and there was a strong sense that [removal of the ban] was consistent with the principles of federalism,” said Frankel, who is a now a senior fellow at Eno.
Tolls will likely be part of the revenue stream for projects funded through the Trump plan, he said.
“Private loans have to be served, private investors need a return on their investments, and states will need an additional revenue streams to take full advantage of the president’s plan,” Frankel said. “Tolls can and should be considered to leverage those private investments in public surface transportation infrastructure.
Tolling the 47,000 miles of interstate highways at the average per-mile charge on U.S. toll roads could generate an additional $104 billion per year, the Congressional Research Service said in a report last year.
A less-ambitious alternative to toll only the 17,000 miles of often-congested interstates in urban areas would produce almost $40 billion per year, the CRS said, or about the annual collections from the federal taxes on gasoline and diesel.