Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he is open to interstate tolling, which could provide funds for the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda, as an alternative to raising the federal gas tax, the current source of revenues for most transportation projects.
Meanwhile, the House voted 421 to 4 to approve an extension of federal transportation funds for the remainder of fiscal 2011, through Sept. 30.
Speaking at a conference held by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials here on Wednesday, LaHood reiterated that an increase to the 18.4-cent federal gas tax “is not on the table.”
But he said revenue from state tolling on interstate highways is growing more viable.
“Tolling has to be part of the mix,” LaHood said. “If states come to us with plans for tolling, we will look at them very carefully.”
But for the Federal Highway Administration to allow interstate tolling, the funds must be spent solely on transportation projects, the secretary said.
The FHWA has twice rejected a plan by Pennsylvania to toll a portion of Interstate 80 “because part of the tolls were going to be used for other things,” he said.
For state plans that direct the revenues to transportation projects, “we’re going to be very responsive to that ... as long as you are building more capacity,” LaHood said.
He added that he has already spoken with the governors of Oregon, Washington, Kentucky, and Indiana about interstate projects that expect to use toll revenue as a slice of the funding.
Toll revenues could generate about $50 billion nationally in 10 years, according to Jack Basso, AASHTO’s director of program finance and management. Tolls won’t be viable in all parts of the country, but could serve as an alternative to raising the gas tax.
“People will get over their resistance to tolls if it is the only game in town,” he said.
Also speaking at the conference, House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said he hopes to start writing a six-year reauthorization bill by the end of the month. Mica emphasized that the number-one goal of the reauthorization bill is to “stabilize the highway trust fund.”
“We’ll look at all the leveraging and financing” options, he said. A revival of the Build America Bond program could play a role in the transportation bill, Mica said, adding he is looking to “find the right balance” for the federal subsidy rate.
On high-speed rail, both LaHood and Mica said they will push ahead with projects despite recent setbacks as some Republican governors have rejected federal funding for projects in their states.
LaHood said he has received letters from governors and senators requesting the high-speed rail money that has been rejected by Wisconsin and Ohio. Florida Gov. Rick Scott also has rejected such money, but lawmakers there are petitioning the state’s Supreme Court to force him to use the federal funds.
“America is ready for intercity, high-speed rail,” LaHood said.
Mica, who recently visited California, said he “is not optimistic about what is going to happen” with that state’s high-speed rail projects. Fast rail in the Northeast Corridor “would have the biggest benefit to the U.S.,” he said.